“I hope you are well.”
Something like that phrase appears in at least half the personal emails I write. Until reading Greg’s reflections on theodicy, humility and hope last week, I had not thought specifically about what I mean by those words. By “hope,” do I mean that I hope God will bring all things to fulfillment in the lives of those I’m emailing? Maybe, but that has never been a conscious intent. It’s more of an expression of good will.
That is to say, it’s more like optimism — I hope things are going well for the person. It’s more salutation and less a theological statement about God’s role in our future.
Let’s take a look at some of the scientific work on hope and optimism. Very little of it takes a theological perspective, but as you teach and preach true Christian hope, the science can surely be a good conversation partner. Especially if you refer to hope as frequently as I’ve realized I do.
Hope and Optimism Research
As you will see in this lexicon, the terms “hope” and “optimism” get bandied around in many ways. Scholarly and scientific research focuses mostly on optimism—or what we as Christians might find to be shallower notions of hope. And many of the findings are not surprising. Expecting better outcomes and thinking positively seem to correlate with, well, better and positive outcomes.
Here are just a few:
- Hope and optimism correlate with better health. The inverse is true as well—better health correlates with higher levels of hope and optimism.
- Optimists tend to live longer.
- Optimism correlates with several measures of happiness and success in a virtuous cycle. Pessimism correlates negatively in a vicious cycle.
- All of us, kids and adults, are prone to the optimism bias — that is, we tend to think more highly of ourselves than we probably should.
- Individual levels of optimism tend to rise until middle age and then decline into older adulthood. Kids are not necessarily more hopeful than adults.
- Hope and optimism can be cultivated and increased, but it can be especially hard work for a pessimist to begin to see the glass as half-full.
Hope and optimism are part of the family of virtues studied by the vibrant field of positive psychology. This work not only studies the virtues individually, but also often finds connections. So gratitude appears to be a virtue connected to optimism, and cultivating gratitude can help increase hope and optimism.
- This 4-minute video summarizes a lot of relevant research.
- Tali Sharot writes and speaks about the optimism bias.
- How do you learn the skill of optimism?
- A collection of text and video resources on hope and optimism.
- Our friends at ORBITER have a complete page on the topic.
- Barbara Ehrenreich shares a secular sermon on optimism.
- A philosopher considers positive psychology and Christian virtues.
- Can hope improve your ministry to disadvantaged kids?
A Plight of Positive Thinking?
How does this research help us in ministry? Good question. It can certainly help if you want to cultivate optimism as a proxy for Christian hope. And there are many possibilities to use the research as illustrations for lessons, sermons, and Bible studies on the Christian virtue of hope. You know the verses and the themes throughout the Scriptures.
What you may not be thinking is how this research mirrors our culture. Whether we like it or not, two things are true about our culture milieu. Science is trusted and seen as reliable—including the “softer” sciences like positive psychology. And positive thinking—which is soaked in optimism—is the dominant cognitive orientation we are expected to have.
Barbara Ehrenreich gained quite a reputation as a foil for positive thinking in her critique of what she called “an ideological force in American culture.” She did so through her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Her battle with breast cancer frames the book—how pink ribbons (and pink stuffed animals) and advice about the need to fight cancer with optimism and positivity. She found the same emphasis in business, including those struggling to find jobs, and in churches. She even suggests optimism blinded us to the causes of major economic downturns and even the tragic attacks on 9/11. And I’m sure she would find my seemingly innocent salutation—“I hope you are well”—to be further evidence of its pervasiveness.
You may or may not fully agree with Ehrenreich’s analysis, but there is no doubt even today that a strong cultural ethos of “positive thinking” exists in America with a massive industry, buttressed by scientific research, behind it. It is in those cultural waters, where the church swims today. We must be self-critical when we take in too much culture and we must continue to proclaim our true hope that is Christ and Christ resurrected. It is our Christian belief—and the wellspring of our hope—that God can and will bring all things to fulfillment.
I hope you are up to this task in your ministry. And by “hope,” this time I do indeed mean a desire that God will bring all things to fulfillment for you and your ministry.
Or, as Romans puts it, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”