Growing Hope

growing-hope1MSNBC is my channel of choice for news watching (<3 Rachel Maddow!), and although most of what I watch is recorded to allow for skipping through the commercials (and because, Lark that I am, I am often asleep before the show airs!), I do pause pretty much once a day for a look at their “Growing Hope” initiative graphic (borrowed here), which I have found really draws me in and evokes a positive emotional response.

What does it mean to grow hope?  How do we do it?

This week I read a fun, yet thought-provoking, blog post by Baden Eunson in which the author bemoaned the fact that current common usage of the word “hopefully” demonstrates a significant shift in meaning from earlier usage.  When used as an adverb by earlier generations, the term meant “full of hope” or “with hope” (as, Eunson notes, in the Robert Louis Stevenson quote “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”).  It’s a highly positive connotation.

In contrast, our generation has taken to using “hopefully” as a squinting modifier (a grammar term I had not heard before, so thanks to Eunson for supplying the About.com link to it’s meaning!), a form that serves as code for, “I don’t have much hope at all” – as in the case of the airline clerk who tells us, “Hopefully, your luggage will turn up.”

Why is this meaning shift important?  In previous posts, I have mentioned that I have begun exploring the work of Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.  In The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brown discusses cultivating hope as one of the essential aspects of developing resilience.  Drawing from the work of Charles R. Snyder, who during his career at the University of Kansas was one of the founders of the field of positive psychology, Brown explains that what we learn about hope as children from the significant adults in our life has a critical impact on how we function in the world as we grow.

Contrary to what we may think, Brown explains that “hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process.”  Three elements are necessary for us to have hope:

  • We need to have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
  • We need to be able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again).
  • We need to believe in ourselves (I can do this!)

Clearly, our trend of using “hopefully” which indicates a lack of hope, rather than a full-of-hope state, is working against our ability to grow hope, and thus to support resilience.

How do we grow hope? What can we do as parents/teachers/advisors to cultivate hope in our children and our students?  According to Brown, we may need to rethink the pendulum swing that has occurred as a result of the self-esteem movement.  Like Brown, in my work with students, I have observed that as a result of some of our well-intended but apparently misguided efforts to build self-esteem, we have raised children “who have little tolerance for disappointment and have a strong sense of entitlement, which is very different than agency.”

Brown’s original research clearly showed the negative outcomes of the types of shaming techniques that were commonly used at the time of my childhood, and those of us who experienced that form of behavioral control can well understand why the self-esteem movement arose.  However, we are now seeing clearly that the opposite end of that spectrum has a whole new set of negative outcomes.

To live with authentic hope, we need to understand the values of persistence and hard work.  We need to comprehend that most achievements that are worthwhile don’t come easy, but are the result of hard work and determination.  While the old attitude that “all gain requires pain” may have equated with the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – an unhealthy extreme – the notion that every endeavor should be easy and fun is equally dangerous to a long-term healthy life.

The place where we can grow a full crop of hope lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes that have prevailed in my half decade of life.  We do need the belief in ourselves that is the goal of the self-esteem movement (and which many of those who experienced the shaming so common in my childhood did not have), but that belief needs to be built on a solid foundation of competence.  I have seen many students enter college with a belief that they can do things that they do not have the appropriate skill set to actually accomplishment – a self-esteem that others will inevitably view as unwarranted.  When the bubble of their erroneous belief is burst, many are completely unprepared; having always been protected from failure, they have no ability to deal with it, and they often give up entirely – the opposite outcome of what was intended.

Brown explains the balance that is needed.  Growing hope requires a mind-set that understands “that some endeavors will be difficult and time consuming and not enjoyable at all.”  Yet to maintain equilibrium, “hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast, and easy doesn’t that it has less value than a difficult goal.  If we want to cultivate hopefulness, we have to be willing to be flexible and demonstrate perseverance.  Not every goal will look the same.  Tolerance for disappointment, determination, and a belief in self are the heart of hope.”

If we want our children and students to believe that they can effect change – a belief necessary for living and loving with whole hearts – they will need “resilience and hope and a spirit that can carry [them] through the doubt and fear.”

As Maya Angelou so often said, “When we know better, we do better.”  We’ve made mistakes at both the shame- and empty-self-esteem extremes of the pendulum swing.  Let’s move to the center now, find the balance point, and begin the work of growing a new crop of hope!

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Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (http://brenebrown.com/)

Eunson, B. (2014, May 26). Hopefully, literally, begs the question: the three most annoying misuses in English.  http://theconversation.com/hopefully-literally-begs-the-question-the-three-most-annoying-misuses-in-english-26595

MSNBC “Growing Hope” Initiative:

http://www.msnbc.com/hope-submit

http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/growing-hope-149171779625

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