The Science of Hope and Optimism

We awarded roughly $1.4 million in funding for new research in the social sciences on hope, optimism, and other related states.

Social scientists have defined the terms “hope" and “optimism" in many different ways. Researchers often begin with the commonsense notion of dispositional optimism, which is the relatively stable expectation that good things rather than bad things will generally happen. They then go on to use or make reference to concepts such as the optimism of everyday life, big optimism, little optimism, private optimism, public optimism, explanatory style optimism, here-and-now optimism, and end-of-the-story optimism, among others. One goal of the present project is to clarify which definitions, constructs, and measures related to these and other terms are the most theoretically and practically fruitful, and which might have significant interdisciplinary import.

Optimism has received more attention in scientific studies than has hope, and therefore a wider range of measures and characterizations have been proposed, validated, and applied for optimism than for hope. As a result of this imbalance, different evaluative procedures will be used for proposals addressing optimism as opposed to those addressing hope. For proposals addressing optimism, preference will be given to those that clarify and utilize one of the many existing optimism constructs or measures to make progress in the areas outlined in the Research Questions. With respect to hope, preference will be given to those that utilize characterizations and measures that go beyond the extant psychological literature to address some of the Research Questions.


Background

Psychology

For most of the 20th century, psychology emphasized negative aspects of human experience - disorders - and their treatment. Researchers and clinicians seemed to assume that positive inaccuracies, such as overly optimistic assessments of one's chances, were undesirable. A neutral and “realistic" perspective was a hallmark of mental health.

Interest in optimism increased in the 1980s when various theories and/or measures were developed by Charles Carver, Michael Scheier, Martin Seligman, Shelley Taylor, Neil Weinstein, and others. There is now a growing literature on the correlations between optimism and well-being, which, according to some, challenges the assumption that realistic predictions and self-assessments are most strongly correlated with health and well-being.

Despite these advances, numerous questions for the psychological study of optimism remain unanswered. For example, it remains unclear whether the correlations between optimism and physical health are due primarily to the benefits of optimism, the harms of pessimism, or both. Prospective and longitudinal studies, together with new meta-analyses of the existing data are needed to clarify the causal and explanatory relations underlying optimism-related phenomena.

In addition, there have been relatively few investigations of the genetic, neuropsychological, and environmental roots of optimism. Some such studies, such as those on the genetic determinants of optimism, would require substantial resources and large samples; these obstacles have often proven difficult to overcome.

The psychological profile of hope has received even less attention by researchers. Since the work of O. Hobart Mowrer and Ezra Stotland on the psychology of hope in the 1960s, a significant amount of research has focused on college students or healthy adults and their concrete goal expectations. Studies from nursing science, by contrast, have focused primarily on coping strategies in end-of-life situations. Less is known about how hope functions in other contexts or across the lifespan. As with optimism, insufficient attention has been paid to the social, developmental, genetic and neurological dimensions of hope and hopefulness.

Unlike in optimism studies, there is not a widely accepted definition or measure for hope. For example, the often cited Snyder Hope Scales emphasizes goal-related factors but it is unclear whether these factors are as central to the psychology of hope as C.R. Snyder's own theory predicts.This reinforces the need for more foundational work on hope, including studies that include construct explication, and empirical studies flowing from such articulations.


Sociology

Strikingly little research on hope and optimism has been done in sociology. Two broad areas have received attention in sociology: optimism and culture; and optimism and religion. Over the last decade, sociologists have explored a number of issues at the intersection of optimism and culture, including apparent cultural differences in levels of optimism, the importance of optimism to the existence of cohesive, flourishing cultures, and the means by which cultural structures and institutions cultivate optimism. Further work needs to be done, however, on the underlying neurological, biological, psychological, religious, and socio-cultural mechanisms that account for the small variations in levels of optimism across cultures. In addition, more studies are needed in order to discover the role of optimism in sustaining cultures, and the precise features of the implicit cultural policies that promote and mediate optimism in a culture.

Over the past few decades, most research on the connection between religion and optimism has been on individual religiosity and how one's level of religiosity relates to and promotes psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Much less work has been done on religion as a social institution and how it relates to optimism. Further research is needed on how religion—as a complex, multidimensional domain consisting of organizational practices, social relationships, support mechanisms, non-organizational practices, identities, beliefs and experiences, and more—promotes (or deters) optimism. Finally, since the few empirical studies on religion and optimism have been conducted in the U.S. or other western societies that are, for the most part, Judeo-Christian (or post-Christian), further research is needed in non-Judeo-Christian, non-Western contexts.


All funding has been awarded for the Science of Hope and Optimism initiative.