When Is Hope Harmful?

In the last week, what have you hoped for? To be disciplined in keeping your New Year’s resolutions? That a loved one will be successful in fighting cancer? That this damn pandemic will actually subside for good in 2022? That your kids will do better in school? That your mother will be kinder to or less critical of you? That your partner will do more of their share of the household tasks? That you’ll eat healthier or exercise more? That you will feel less stressed about money, work, aging parents, or a strained romantic relationship? The list of things that we may hope for is endless. However, hope itself should not be endless. Endless hope is counterproductive and even harmful.

Hope As a Double-Edged Sword

Hope is an optimistic frame of mind or perspective that most often is a useful resource. It helps us anticipate and perhaps work toward positive or beneficial outcomes for ourselves and/or for others. Hope can help us stick out a shorter term trial or challenge until it is resolved and life gets a little easier.

However, taken too far or engaged in for too long, hope can morph into a harmful and negative coping mechanism. Another way to think about this idea is this: Optimism is good and overoptimism is bad. Optimism can provide us with the mental, emotional and physical resources to push through hard times. Overoptimism undermines us by encouraging, even demanding, us to keep investing our time, energy and attention towards pursuits or relationships that history indicates are not going to improve or succeed, even with our utmost effort.

Hope – Too much of a Good Thing

That’s right. Hope has a Dark Side. It can keep us in dead-end jobs. Tether us to a partner we don’t love anymore or who doesn’t appear to love us. It can chain us to an abusive boss or uncivil coworkers. It can delay our getting help for a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression, or urging someone close to us to do so. Too much hope can hold us captive to our spending habits. In other words, endless hope can lead to inertia, the status quo, and learned helplessness.

To have hope is to have an expectation of something or someone. If we hope that a rude coworker, bully boss, or unkind family member or friend will change for the better, that hope suggests we have an expectation that they will turn over a new leaf. However, is it reasonable to expect a situation or individual to change? Is there a reason, or evidence, or logic for the expectation of things to change? In other words, do you have hope (i.e., expectations) for change or just wishes that are without a solid foundation?

We may think that by waiting and hoping, and hoping and waiting that we are not losing anything by playing the hoping/waiting/wishful thinking game. But chances are, we are losing time. Time is our most precious resource as individuals because it is not something we can multiply, acquire more of, or get back if it has already been spent. Thus, waiting and hoping may often come at a cost. A cost to the time we have. A cost that we often overlook, ignore, or even flat out deny. 

Wishful Thinking = Desirability Bias

As George Orwell wrote in 1945, ‘people can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes.’ As humans, our inclination is to develop expectations that are in alignment with our preferences. For example, if we wish our romantic partner would drink less, we often expect them to do so, regardless of the evidence to the contrary (e.g., decades of drinking a bottle of wine a day). Or we hope that our close family member will successfully battle an aggressive  form of cancer despite the physician provided prognosis being extremely poor.

We may call what we are experiencing hope but that “hope” may actually be wishful thinking not grounded in reality or in science. In other words, wishful thinking may develop because the desirability bias is persistent and strong. We want something to happen and thus expect it to. While this is not helpful, it does make us human. The challenge is to develop an awareness of when we’re engaging in hope’s utility that helps us persevere and when we’re engaging in wishful thinking that keeps us stuck.

The desirability bias is a type of optimism bias. It can often lead to what researchers call “an escalating commitment to a failing course of action.” The idea is often applied to business situations where managers or leaders have to make a tough decision about whether to keep allocating resources to a project, service or product, or pull the plug and cut their losses. However, it can be a useful frame to apply to any area of life – health, finances, family relationships, parenting, friendships, volunteering. In my opinion, outside of our work life is where it might have the most power.

Hope or Wishful Thinking?

Hope embodies looking forward to or expecting something based on a reason or sensible confidence that the expectation will be fulfilled. On the other hand, wishful thinking constitutes the beliefs we hold because we want something to be true rather than using evidence, logic, rationale, or reality to inform what the future may hold. Thus, there are several questions you could ask yourself to help determine whether you are embracing hope or engaging in wishful thinking about a specific situation:

  1. What does the historical context suggest will occur? In other words, looking back on the history of this situation, what would one reasonably expect to occur?
  2. What new evidence is there that what I hope/wish will happen will actually occur?
  3. If I told a wise and trusted friend about the situation, what would they say about whether I’m hoping or wishing? 
  4. If a close friend were in the same situation I find myself in, would I see them as 1) hoping, or 2) engaging in wishful thinking?

Giving Up “Hope”

I am not going to lie to you – giving up or letting go of hope (or wishful thinking) is hard. In my experience, it HURTS – down into your bones. It is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually painful and depleting. I spent 11 months coming to the decision to leave my first marriage. Looking back, I’d engaged in hope or wishful thinking for many, many years leading up to that. Letting go of hope one has held for a long time is a unique challenge. A hidden camera in my home probably would show I cried every single damn day of those 11 months. Big, drippy wet tears that were difficult to stop. I’d tried for so long to hang on and hang in there. It was painful to admit that what I had been doing or trying was not working. That I wasn’t being hopeful. Rather I was engaging in wishful thinking.

Here’s the good news: on the other side of the painful, agonizing process of letting go of hope or wishful thinking, there is ACTUAL HOPE. There is a new kind of hope that comes from letting go of what’s not working and shifting to try something that might work. There is the potential, if not the reality, of a Positive Pivot that frees us to think about the possibilities more broadly. There’s a hope that is more grounded in reality compared to our wishful thinking. Letting go of hope or wishful thinking is scary. It can also be liberating. It can free us up to take action that helps us lead happier, healthier and wealthier lives. 

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 

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