Hope is one of those strange concepts that, when spoken about, elicits a wide spectrum of reactions. Some see the idea of 'hope' as almost delusional - detached in some way from reality, and leading those who put their energy into it away from 'real' life - while some see hope as the very foundation of real life. As for me, I see hope as utterly integral to the adventure of life: without hope - without the belief that, no matter how good this moment is, the best is yet to come - there is no point to the adventure at all.
And that's why I love this quote from Lewis B Smedes: "Hope is to our spirits what oxygen is to our lungs. Lose hope and you die. They may not bury you for a while, but without hope you are dead inside. The only way to face the future is to fly straight into it on the wings of hope... hope is the energy of the soul. Hope is the power of tomorrow.". For me, that quote perfectly captures the essence, and function, of hope.
I also love this quote from renowned Hope Researcher, Charles Snyder: "A rainbow is a prism that sends shards of multicoloured light in various directions. It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible. Hope is the same: a personal rainbow of the mind." To me, that implies that hope is an essential element of unleashing not just your potential, but your true self. Without hope, your true self doesn't stand a chance, and your potential will be forever shackled.
So, hope seems to be pretty important, but how, exactly, does it work?
Good question. And Charles Snyder (who I quoted earlier) has gone some way to answering it. Snyder and his colleagues suggested that hope was a positive way of processing information that was focused on pursuing goals, and a belief that those goals would be achieved. For these researchers, rather than a concept of hope focused on a sense of 'being', with their emphasis on goal directed thinking and behaviour, they put forward a model of hope that was focused on doing.
Snyder developed that...
The eternal optimist - the one whose glass is always half full, and who sees every rain cloud as a precursor to a rainbow - can truly grate after a while. Especially if you are the one who's under the rain cloud at the time, or whose glass has just been knocked over so that it's totally empty.
But, equally, so does the perpetual pessimist - the one whose glass is always half empty (at best) and who sees every rain cloud as merely a foretaste of the mother of all storms that's just waiting in the wings.
So you need balance - a little dose of reality in the mix, if you like. You see, like we talked about last week, there are a lot of upsides to optimism, but there are a few downsides, too. And, in the same way, while there are countless downsides to pessimism, there are also a few upsides. So, just as being optimistic isn't necessarily always a good thing, so being pessimistic isn't necessarily always a bad thing. The trick is to know how to use both sides of the equation at the right time, in the right place, so that you get maximum advantage.
So, what is pessimism?
Essentially, pessimism is pretty much everything that optimism is not. Where an optimist will gravitate towards the best possible outcome, and hold onto a belief that things will turn out well, if not even better, the pessimist believes the opposite: things will inevitably turn out badly, and the worst outcome is what they'll end up with.
Of course, there are shades of optimism, and shades of pessimism; and those two viewpoints I used to demonstrate the contrast between optimism and pessimism are at the extremes. But, wherever it sits on the spectrum, there's no doubt about it: pessimism gets a bad rap; and pessimists often find bucket-loads of scorn coming in their direction, because of their perceived negativity, and their ability to instantly pour cold water on pretty much anything.
You might be forgiven for suggesting that the bad rap is entirely justified. After all, pessimism has been linked with...
Optimism is something you hear about a lot. It's a word that gets thrown around in all sorts of contexts. Governments always seem to have copious levels of optimism when it comes to 'reaching agreement' with whoever it is they are currently disagreeing; sports teams often seem to find 'reason for optimism' even after suffering heavy defeats; and doctors often state how they 'remain optimistic' that their patient will make a full recovery.
Those governments, sports teams and doctors either choose to, or have good grounds to, believe that everything will turn out OK.
But it's that 'glass always half full' and 'everything's gonna be just fine' side to optimism that means that, all too often, it's seen as a fluffy idea - the stuff of fairy tales, and people who believe the world is all sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. But there's a lot more to optimism than simply believing that, somehow, everything is going to be OK. And over 20 years of research has proved that beyond doubt.
Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology discipline and author of many books, including 'Learned Optimism' , suggests that the way that we explain the causes and influences of past positive and negative events influences our expectations of the future, and leads to either optimism, or pessimism. And, for me (you may disagree), the idea that there is something clearly identifiable - a cause or influence - to anchor your view of the future to makes sense.
So, how does optimism work?
Well, sticking with Seligman's theory of optimism, whether or not you feel positive about the future, when you find yourself in different situations, depends on your answers to three simple questions:
1. Who or what is the situation due to?
Say you failed a test. You may see that as being down to an external factor - lack of preparation, a nightmare journey to the test centre, feeling under the weather, for example. Or, you may put it down to an internal cause - your own lack of ability or skill, for...
I know how it feels to long for what is yet to be: to be fixated on the possibilities and expectations of the future; always striving, always discontent, always restless, never satisfied. I know what it is to buy into the lie that, further down the road the grass is greener than in your own back yard. And I know the price that has to be paid to feel like that, and buy into that lie: happiness.
And let me be straight here: your happiness is a high price to pay for something that will always be just out of reach and, even if you were to momentarily catch up with it, will only ever turn out to be an illusion.
For years I wanted the 'next thing'. Be it a car, a house, a gadget, a pay-rise, a holiday, or whatever, that 'next thing' would move me closer to that greener grass - the place where, once I had it within my grasp, I would finally be truly happy. And so I worked fiendishly to navigate my way to that 'happy place', ruthlessly and single-mindedly trampling on whatever, and whoever got in my way.
Until, one day, I couldn't do it any more. That day in April 2000 the rug got pulled from under my feet and I ended up face down in a whole heap of realisation and regret. And, over the next eighteen months or so, I began to realise the full horror of what all that striving, discontent, restlessness and dissatisfaction had done, not just to me, but to the people I loved - the people who had always been right in front of me, yet always so far away.
I remember sitting round a friend's kitchen table in Cincinnati, and hearing him saying 'lower your gaze, Andy. Attend to what is right under your nose'. But with a 'lowered gaze' was not how I had been conditioned to approach life - my gaze was cast far out beyond the horizon: never-mind what was under my nose, I wanted what was 'out there'. He was right, though; it was me who'd got it all wrong.
You see, always striving for the next thing is a bit like pouring yourself a glass of fine wine, or perfectly aged whiskey, or a mug...
Let me ask you a question: does it sometimes feel like finding happiness is about as easy as herding cats? You seem to find it and take hold of it, but then it slips right through your fingers, leaving you back in the doldrums and in search of that 'thing' to lift your spirits.
Well, if that sounds familiar, the first thing to say is that you are not on your own. And the second thing to say is that there's a reason happiness can appear to be so elusive.
That reason is linked to the concept of 'hedonism'. The dictionary says that hedonism is the school of thought that argues that 'pleasure and suffering are the only components of well-being [or, in other words, happiness]'. On that line of thinking, if you feel pleasure, you are happy; and if you don't experience pleasure, you are most likely at best not happy, but probably you are erring towards miserable, maybe even unhappy.
And out of hedonism comes the term 'hedonic', which the dictionary defines as 'relating to, characterized by, or considered in terms of pleasant (or unpleasant) sensations'. Which, in turn, leads onto the idea of 'Hedonic Well-being', which essentially states that well-being is found through the perpetual experience of pleasure - no pleasure means no happiness.
And maybe that would not be so bad if you could find just one or two things that give rise to sensations of pleasure in you, and then find lasting happiness. But, according to the Hedonic Well-being model, that's where there's something of a sting in the tail.
You see, that initial surge of pleasure you feel from particular experiences or situations gradually fades, until you return to 'normal' levels. And that means that you need another 'pleasure hit' to get that happiness high again. And so it goes on. In fact, there's a term for it: the Hedonic Treadmill.
So, if you think about it, as a theory, Hedonic Well-being stacks up, and in no small part helps to explain why happiness seems always just out of reach, or to constantly slip...
Why do you do what you do? Do you ever take the time to stand back and wonder, just for a moment, what it is that drives your decisions; what it is that pushes you further along the path you are travelling; that makes you (nevermind the chicken) cross the road?
For me (and I'd hazard a guess it may well be for you, too), it was the pursuit of success. I longed to be 'successful'. Come. What. May. You see, when I finally made it - when I was at last 'successful' I'd be happy. When I had everything I wanted - every marker of success I longed for - I would be able to sit back, fold my hands behind my head and let out a content, satisfied sigh, as I surveyed all that I had accomplished, and basked in the happiness it had brought with it.
Only it never seemed to quite work out like that. In fact, hindsight (wonderful thing such as it is) showed me just how flawed, and painfully ironic, my rationale for achieving happiness was: the more 'successful' I became, the more the happiness I wanted to get my hands on slipped through my fingers, and the more miserable and discontent I became.
In the movie by the same name, Megamind knows just how that feels - how success does not bring with it the sense of wellbeing he had hoped for.
But here's what I've come to realise: Megamind and me, we had it all back to front. It isn't the pursuit of success that leads to happiness, it's the pursuit of happiness that leads to success.
Now, I know what you are thinking, because, for a while, I thought it, too: how do you expect to find happiness if you haven't experienced success? I get it - it's a ridiculous notion that rubs against everything you've had modelled to you as you progressed through school, college and on into a career: if you've achieved success, but happiness remains elusive, then clearly you are not yet successful enough, so you'd best try harder.
But here's what I know... you can try as hard as you like - working long into the night, seven days a week,...
As the realisation that his whole life was made up sets in, Truman faces a choice: break free, or remain trapped in an existence manufactured by someone else. It’s the same choice you face. The same choice I face. We can exist in a world and a life constructed by the situations and circumstances of our situation, or we can live our real lives. Stark, I know, but true all the same.
The Truman Show is a movie that captures the whole struggle - from blissful ignorance through to painful awareness through to decision time - with alarming poignancy.
As Truman’s ignorance of his true plight slips away to be replaced by a dawning realisation of the true horror of what his life has been, he asks “Was nothing real?”. What follows is a dialogue that, in a few brilliant lines, cuts right to the lie that stands between so many of us and the lives we are supposed to be living.
Cristof (the creator of Truman’s world) replies “You were real, that’s what made you so good to watch.” In an attempt to convince Truman to remain in his construct, Cristof adds “There is no more truth out there than in the world I created for you. Same lies, same deceit, but in my world you have nothing to fear.” In desperation, as Truman waivers on the brink of departure, he follows up with “I know you better than you know yourself. You are afraid, that’s why you cannot leave.”
But Truman does leave (sorry for the spoiler, if you haven’t seen the movie) and, as the credits roll and the curtains close, his parting message says it all: “I knew this show was fake from the start, it was my incredible acting that fooled everyone”.
“I knew this show was fake from the start.” It’s true, isn’t it? Deep down, we know that the world we have been trapped in is fake. So we fake it, too. And it is our incredible acting that fools everyone (including ourselves).
But the battle against...
I fix problems. It’s what I do. It’s how I’m wired. See problem, fix it. And that’s good, because it helps to make the world go around. But, as commendable as playing my part in keeping the world turning may be, it’s also the very reason I spent the first thirty years of my life focused on keeping other people happy, and having no freaking clue who I really was.
I was so intent on living up to expectations, on being the one who could be relied upon, and being reliant on no-one, that I never stepped back to think about whether that person - the reliable self-reliant one - was actually who I was. And you know what? When I actually did take the time to ponder that question (or, rather, had that pondering-time imposed upon me), turns out that wasn’t me at all.
I had spent the best part of three decades living as someone who wasn’t me; and, I’m not going to lie, discovering that you’ve been living some other dude’s life riles you up. Or it did me, anyway. But that’s not the worst of it. No, not by a long shot.
Because, it also turns out that when you live out your days in someone else’s life, those same people you were trying so hard to please actually end up disappointed. And all that discomfort and wasted time existing in a life that wasn’t your own, was for nothing.
And that totally sucks.
You see, when you live your life - your real life - and you focus on becoming your best self, not only do you experience a lot less discomfort and enjoy life a whole heap more, the people around you experience a version of you that is far richer than the interpretation they may otherwise have been subjected to.
And, if you think about it, that figures, right? If you are the best version of you - your best self - then the people you invite into your life, and who invite you into theirs, experience the best you can be: the best husband, wife or partner; the best mother, father, son, daughter, sister,...
Want to know why somewhere around nine out of ten people contemplating the adventure into becoming their best self never move past just thinking about it - why their adventure never get even as far as a first step being taken?
Well, I’ve heard a myriad excuses, but there is one that I have heard many, many more times than any other, and it’s this: “I can’t take that adventure right now, because I have no idea who my best self actually is - so how can I ever become that person?”
It’s like some cruel twist of irony: to know your best self is not a prerequisite of the adventure, it is a *product *of it. And you only get your hands on that product by taking the adventure.
There literally is no other way to figure out who the best version of you actually is. Every answer you want - every detail, every nuance, every discovery - lies in the adventure. Not in the destination, in the adventure.
Sure, you can try and avoid the adventure. You can stay in the comfort of your living room, TV remote in one hand and a bowl of chips in the other, absorbing the messages the world wants to give you about who you are, and who you should be. But the person the world wants you to be is not the person you truly are.
The world wants to shape you into something new, but here’s the thing: you don’t need to become something new to be your best self, you simply need to become all of who you already are. You see, the real you has been present within you since before you were born. It never left you. It never abandoned you. It simply slipped from view as the volume of the world’s messages became louder and louder.
So, the only way you can ever discover your best self is to look deep inside. To explore the places long forgotten, and the places yet to be discovered. To search tirelessly for the treasure that has long since been misplaced, but yet still cries out to be found, never giving up hope that, one day, it will once more be brought...
Are you one of those people that tells yourself that you left it too late? The ship that held your dreams has sailed. You are all out of second chances to live the life you always wanted (not that you can remember what that actually looks like) and now you just have to suck it up, dig in, and see out your days as best you can.
Well, if you are, you are most definitely not alone. And, even if you don’t see yourself that way, I’m willing to bet that, in secret moments, when no-one else is around and you don’t have to paint a smile on your face, thoughts not too far away from those I just mentioned float across your mind. Maybe you are pretty good at seeing them off right now, but, trust me, there looms a day when seeing them off will no longer work.
Which is why I want to get one thing straight. And hear me right when I say this, because I get that it really may feel like you are backed into a corner with nowhere left to go but the slippery slide into existence, but those beliefs are flat out wrong. You haven’t left it too late. The ship full of your dreams has not sailed. There is always another chance, and you never have to ‘suck it up and see out your days as best you can’. Never.
Don’t believe me? Thinking to yourself ‘that’s all well and good for you to say, Andy, but you aren’t me, with my life, my challenges. You didn’t make the decisions I made, or the mistakes for that matter.’?
Well, you don’t have to believe me. And you could think that. And yes, if you did think that, on one level, you’d be right: I am not you; I haven’t lived your life, or made your choices or mistakes; or faced your challenges; but I have lived my life. And you and me - we aren’t so different.
And the thing that makes us not so different is this: no matter how many bad decisions you make, how many mistakes you find yourself in the middle of, or what challenges you face, there is...