Hope, Optimism and Positivity
Hope, optimism and positivity are all important ideas that have the ability to make our lives better. However, they are not equivalent concepts; it's important to be clear about the differences between them, and when to use them. If we do so we are likely to be able to use them with greater success. So what are the differences between hope, optimism and positivity?
Hope – powering our future
Firstly, hope is an expression of our wishes that things will turn out well. It is an expression of our desire for a better future for ourselves and others. It injects us with a reason to keep trying and persevering, it and has a strong motivational impact on us. Hope doesn't directly reflect what we think the outcome will be but rather reflects what we want the outcome to be. Hope probably reflects the default position for most people in most situations.
Optimism – injecting a positive bias
Secondly, optimism reflects a tendency to look at things in a positive way and reflects an increased expectation that things will, most of the time, go well. It goes beyond hope in that it injects positive bias into our ideas about the future. It too has a motivational impact but it is a biased position tilted towards an expectation of good outcomes. Like all biases, this can distort the signals that our environment is telling us and cause us to focus on what we would prefer to happen rather than on what is likely to happen. Optimism is an appropriate attitude in many situations when we don't dismiss the possibility of negative outcomes and can cope when they happen.
Positivity – cherry-picking reality
Lastly, positivity is the idea that things will always work out well for us. No matter what the circumstances, the outcome will be right for us. Whilst positivity may help us to think more broadly about the situations we are in, it is essentially a position that asks us to ignore the data about situations if that data is negative. Only positive points of view are welcome and there is no room for a dissenting voice or balance without that being labelled as negativity. With positivity, the bias is complete. Positivity is essentially an avoidance of negativity. I would suggest that it is, paradoxically, only appropriate in hopeless situations when hope and optimism are not enough for us to endure.
A job interview
To give an example, let's assume that we are waiting on the outcome of a job interview. We know we were not the only good candidate, but the interview went well and we feel like we could do the job well if selected. If we are hopeful about the result, it means that we would like the job and we are keeping our spirits up until we find out more. Our hope allows us to put thoughts of the job aside and do other things. If we are optimistic about the result, it means that we feel it went well and there is likely to be a job offer made.
Our optimism keeps our spirits up and can counter mild negativity about the job, but it makes it harder for us if we don't get the job. If we are positive about the result, we feel we will get the job. This is more likely to be a reflection of our own need to stay positive than an accurate reading of our prospects. Not getting the job after being positive about the outcome could well be bewildering and devastating.
A critical difference
One critical difference between these concepts is that hope is something you do (Hedke, 2014) whilst optimism and a positivity are only attitudes or orientations. Even when you can't be optimistic or positive, it still might be possible to start to hope.
Naturally, we all want things to work out well for ourselves. But to want that so much that we ignore the realities of the environment puts us at risk of grave disappointment and misjudging our capabilities. Counselling and psychotherapy can help us to become more realistic about what the situation holds for us, but also to deal with the inevitable disappointments and to keep us from being overwhelmed by our negative assessments of ourselves and the situations we are in.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Reference: Hedke, L. (2014). Creating Stories of Hope: A Narrative Approach to Illness, Death and Grief. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 35, pp. 4-19.
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