The Psychology of Hope Part I. Vision vs. Illusion

David Krueger MD

When Pandora’s curiosity overcame her to open the box sent by the gods, and calamities were uncrated into the world, the last to merge, as the legend had it, was hope. 

Hope focuses on a better future, a wishful expectation that tomorrow someone, some event, or perhaps even time itself, will bring fulfillment.  In extreme instances, hope is not what the future is but that it is. 

Hope’s blueprint is mastery: it’s reverse image is ineffectiveness.  Hope maintains motivational fuel – purpose – as central theme in the plot of our life or money story.  In childhood, hope is the gaze into the parent’s eye for the approving reflection of “good enough.”  The original inspiration for hope is when someone believes in us, so that we can import that belief from a significant other such as parent, mentor, or teacher; then it can be metabolized into a belief in ourselves.  Hope is guide to the void, sentinel for the unrecognized, fuel for motivation, and promise of what can be.

Hope, ambition’s daydream, lives in a duplex arrangement with the uncertainty of actualization.  Optimism, the anticipation of the best possible outcome, is only a neighbor to hope, for hope is built on a foundation of desire with expectation of fulfillment. 

Over time, disappointment and disillusionment transform idealized hope to obtainable reality.

In the absence of affirming, empathically attuned caregivers, the child may package hope in a container of perfection, offering a perpetual series of occasions for fulfillment.  Perfection is elusive, an unattainable quest to be ultimately and reluctantly mourned; the antithesis of perfect is real.  Bidding farewell to that which never was is perhaps surpassed in sorrow only by having to give up what has already been taken away. Indifference is a less specific, though far greater pain than death.

Hope gives shape to the impossible.  By blaming and perceiving fault in one’s self, a possible remedy for hopelessness is created.  To believe that one caused an event constructs an antidote to passivity, reverse engineering potential effectiveness. 

Rainbow fantasies idealize the future.  “Some day,” “winning the lottery,” and “the perfect person” promise possibility.  (See: Hope for a Dollar:  The Irrational Neuroeconomics of the Lottery) This defensive hope, perhaps necessary at times to vault beyond despairing ineffectiveness to a better future “some day” renders one a prisoner to hope’s rose-colored fantasies, agnostic to self-deceptive falsehoods.  And, if we find the right person (the one we’ve longed for, who we wanted to want), we have to give up longing—that familiar fantasy of what may, but really cannot be. 

False hope’s illusion lives as long as the destination is just out of reach, yet collapses upon attainment of the goal.  To keep a goal just out of reach keeps hope alive.  The maintenance of the illusion, however, requires impossibility: to ‘lose the last ten pounds and then I’ll be happy” must remain elusive.  If the last ten pounds were actually lost, illusory hope would have to be unpackaged to reveal that what it represents could never be. 

Next: The Psychology of Hope Part II.  The Future of Repetition