Like many people during the pandemic, I was discouraged in the spring of 2021. Daily deaths and disruptions continued long past the weeks or months many of us had first imagined—even after vaccines became available. High Holiday planning for 5782 turned out to be more fraught than the year before, when, at least, there was clarity that large groups would not be able to gather indoors.
For months I delved into the topic of hope, including the positive psychology literature. I planned to preach on and for hope during the Holidays and would periodically discuss my reading or writing over dinner with my family. Imagine my surprise when, the day before Rosh Hashanah, my husband said, “I’ve never mentioned this before, but I have an antipathy to the word ‘hope.’ If I hope something will happen, then I fear it won’t.” My response: “Craig, it’s great that we still have some mysteries to discover about one another, but why in the world did you wait so long to tell me this?!”
I quoted this conversation in the opening of my sermon, which, thanks to Craig’s insight, underwent a last-minute rewrite. It is important to begin any discussion of hope, including this article, with the acknowledgment that hope can feel risky, futile, or even false. After trauma or loss, or when the stakes are high or the odds of success slim, we are sometimes afraid to hope. We do not want to “tempt the evil eye” or feel disappointed. People even use the phrase, “I don’t dare hope.” In her famous poem, Emily Dickinson imagines hope as “the thing with feathers.” Yes, it perches in the soul and sings amidst the storms. But it can also fly away.
Hope is not only elusive; it becomes anathema, if lazy. The term “false hope” exists because people do not want to trust any version of hope that ignores reality or abdicates responsibility. At our best, we do not want to fool ourselves. Nor do we wish to be deceived by others about facts or challenges. We know it will not work to just wish impediments away. True hope takes account of what is, even as it searches for more and better possibilities.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the world suffers more from too little hope than from unbridled, careless, or even false hope. Rick Snyder, a leader in hope studies, went so far as to question the accuracy of the term “false hope.” As summarized by psychologist David Arnow:
“People who scored high on Snyder’s measures of hope were sometimes able to solve so-called impossible laboratory tasks that had not been puzzled out in fifteen years … Snyder wrote: ‘Given that society as a whole tends to advance in leaps when “impossible” goals are reached by individuals who dared to try, it seems counterproductive to adopt a policy of automatically dissuading everyone from pursuing seemingly impossible goals…. Care should be taken in concluding that an individual’s goals are “pipe dreams.”’”
The Benefits of Hope
It is important to cultivate hope and not just to limit hope hesitancy or mitigate despair. Being hopeful about any topic—including hope itself—motivates action. Both hope and hopelessness tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Fortunately, the benefits of hope are enormous and enticing. In fact, “[t]he predictive power of hope in a person’s life is greater than [that of] any other character strength,” write Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellmann in their book, Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life.
The following are just some of the benefits verified by peer-reviewed social scientific studies. Knowing and citing these results can help boost hope and its positive effects.
✓ Hope increases the likelihood that adults will achieve their goals.
✓ Hope helps people sustain a practice of physical exercise and improve their athletic performance. Higher hope people perform better in sports than their low-hope teammates with equal abilities and similar demographics.
✓ Hopeful students perform significantly better in school, from elementary grades through graduate school, even accounting for various other factors.
✓ Low-hope employees take sick days more than four times as often as their high-hope colleagues, signifying less well-being and productivity.
✓ “Other conditions being equal, hope leads to a 12 percent gain in academic performance, a 14 percent bump in workplace outcomes, and a 10 percent happiness boost for hopeful people.” (Making Hope Happen, by Shane J. Lopez, PhD)
✓ Hope reduces depression and anxiety.
✓ People with high levels of hope live longer.
In one longitudinal study conducted at University of Texas Health Center in San Antonio, researchers demonstrated that “hope is, in fact, a matter of life and death.” Among 795 people who were followed over the course of seven years, people who felt hopeless were more than twice as likely than their hopeful counterparts to die of natural causes during the time of the study. This remained true when researchers controlled for various other factors, including ethnicity, sexual identity, drinking, perceived health, medical conditions, age, and socioeconomic status.
“Twice as likely to die if hopeless” is a devastating statistic. But, in another longitudinal study of 2,428 men, subjects who scored as moderately or highly hopeless were more than three times as likely to die as their peers. We say, “keep hope alive,” but it is also true that hope keeps us alive.
Join Rabbi Debra Orenstein on Tuesday, November 7, for the WBI/JCC [Virtual] Positive Psychology Hour, when she will present on “Real Hope: Modern Science, Ancient Wisdom, And Newfound, Authentic Hope.” She will draw on the Bible, other spiritual wisdom, and positive psychology to introduce a new and more complete understanding of hope. Learn this new paradigm and the simple steps that each of us can take to manage stress, raise our expectations, and create a brighter future. Register here.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Rabbi Debra Orenstein, CiPP, brings the meaning and relevance of the Jewish spiritual tradition to diverse audiences. Named by the Jewish Daily Forward as “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis,” she has been a keynote speaker at hundreds of venues, including houses of worship, the Chautauqua Institution, and Christian, Jewish, and interfaith conferences. For 20 years, Rabbi Debra taught at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Today, she is an instructor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, New Jersey. Rabbi Debra is the author of eight books, including the Lifecycles series. The main focus of her justice work is ending slavery and promoting freedom. A seventh-generation rabbi, she is also an alumna of the first entering class at the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School to include women. Visit RabbiDebra.com to learn more and download resources.