Notes on Optimism, Hope, and Trust
This post examines the virtues of hope, optimism, and trust. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
What are these virtues?
These virtues have in common a sort of “look on the bright side” / “expect the best” approach to life. But there are a number of ways to interpret this, and if we are looking for a virtue — that is, a characteristic disposition that promotes human flourishing — we would be wise to be precise and careful.
There is a naive version of optimism that I would not want to try to defend on LessWrong:
the belief that the probability of an outcome is increased by one’s positive disposition toward it
So let me say at the start that this is just one possible way the optimistic outlook can be defined, and that others can bear more rational weight.
There is little controversy about hope, optimism, and trust being parts of a flourishing life. However there is controversy about whether encouraging a hopeful, optimistic, trustful outlook puts the cart before the horse. Are hope, optimism, and trust ingredients of a life well lived, or are they results of a life well lived (or perhaps of good fortune)?
Related virtues and vices
These virtues are closely related to some others: Cheer and joy, for instance, are easier to maintain when one is optimistic. Confidence, boldness, and courage are aided by the hope of triumph. Imagination can help you to discover possible good outcomes to be hopeful about. Intimacy, openness, and vulnerability can be boosted by trust. Solidarity can include an extension or expectation of trust. Trust also complements trustworthiness. Richard Rorty thought shared hope was at the base of civility (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity,” 1989).
There is some tension between optimism and prudence (in the sense of caution/vigilance), if optimism causes you to underweight the possibility of bad outcomes that you ought to prepare for. If optimism becomes an excuse to discount evidence that disagrees with a positive outlook, it can undercut rationality and skepticism.
The vices associated with a lack of optimism / hope / trust include cynicism, distrust, doubt, paranoia, suspicion, pessimism, and despair. Sometimes lack of hope in particular becomes fatalism, a feeling of lack of agency (“nothing I do matters”), or, philosophically, a loss of faith in free will. There are also vices associated with an excess of optimism / hope / trust, like unpreparedness, gullibility, or bliss-bunnyishness. “Williams syndrome” is a genetic disorder that includes a dangerous overabundance of trust among its symptoms.
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines hope as “the desire of something together with the expectation of obtaining it.” However, in common use people often hope for things they do not expect or even think likely (e.g. to win the lottery). Hope does seem to at least require some possibility that the hoped-for thing could come to pass, but also some possibility that it might not: you cannot “hope” for something that is a certainty (though you might have a pleasant expectation of it) or an impossibility (though you might wish it could be otherwise). Hope (secular hope, anyway) isn’t the expectation that the hoped-for thing will come to pass but includes the tension of some fear that it will not.
Usually, hope refers to the future. Occasionally, however, people seem to express hopes for past events (“I hope I remembered to turn off the oven”). Some people interpret this as a sort of roundabout way of expressing a future hope (“I hope I find the oven is off when I return home”).
It probably goes without saying, but a thing hoped for is always a positive thing (for the hoper, anyway). You can have expectations of positive or negative things, or fear / dread / foreboding about negative things, but hope always has positive content.
Hope can be motivating: it allows you to imagine the possibility of a future state and its benefits, and so can help drive you to do what needs doing to get there. A sort of mundane hope underlies most all purposeful activity: you hope that by doing something you will get some result. Hope can also be motivating in the way it helps you to set your sights on long-term goals. For example, the hope of what you will accomplish as a doctor can help you endure your long hours of residency. Hope can in this way be active, more like aspiring than passively anticipating.
Hope might also be thought of as a sort of imagination that helps to prepare us for the future. In this it is a complement to fear: fear encourages us to prepare for a future where fears come to pass; hope prepares us for a future where hopes come to pass. (But we don’t call “fear” a virtue; instead we talk about courage or caution or prudence or preparedness. Maybe we need something similar for hope.) Utopian and dystopian writings are elaborate sorts of hopes and fears that ask us to imagine possible futures in a way that invites us to prepare for them or be vigilant about them.
Hope is inherently valuable in that imagining positive things is a pleasant sort of daydreaming. Hoping also helps you to discern and make salient your values: you can learn what you value in part by paying attention to what you hope for.
Intransitive, superstitious, and self-fulfilling hopes
What I have described so far is “hope for” something. There is also a sort of intransitive hope — hope in general — that is more like what I’ll cover in the “Optimism” section below. Hope as a virtue — habitually, characteristically adopting a hopeful stance — resembles this intransitive sort of hope, though it may exhibit itself through specific acts of transitive hope.
There is also the superstitious hope that I alluded to earlier: “wishful thinking” in which you have the irrational belief that your hope will influence future events to align with the contents of your hope. There is all sorts of common magical thinking surrounding this kind of hope: totems and rituals and beliefs that if you just hope strongly enough or sincerely enough you can materialize your hopes just like that. In its worst form, hope of this sort can displace the kind of practical action that might actually help make hopes come to pass.
That said, there are such things as self-fulfilling prophesies in the realm of hope (see the discussion of William James below for more on this). By anticipating fortunate opportunities, we may better prepare ourselves to take advantage of them if they arrive, so in this way hope can indeed help good things come to pass. If we believe superstitiously that “everything happens for a reason,” this may prompt us to look more confidently for the silver lining in the cloud, which may help us find it where we otherwise would have missed it. And sometimes “hope” is the name we use to describe confidence that comes from careful preparation and experience.
There is also such a thing as an irrational lack of hope: a superstitious pessimism (“I’ve always had bad luck”) or paranoia. In such a case, something like “hope” might be recommended as a corrective to help you evaluate reality more rationally. It may be that the virtue is called “hope” not so much because it is a good thing to be more hopeful than reason permits, but because on the continuum of hopeful-to-hopeless the hopeless side is more harmful and so it is wise to err on the hopeful side, all else being equal.
Hope as an intellectual virtue
Hope is sometimes described as an intellectual virtue. It can come to the assistance of intellectual, rational pursuits. William James (see below) noted, for example, that while science declares allegiance to dispassionate evaluation of facts, the history of science shows that it has often been the passionate pursuit of hopes that has propelled it forward: scientists who believed in a hypothesis before there was sufficient evidence for it, and whose hopes that such evidence could be found motivated their researches. Nancy Snow, in “Hope as an Intellectual Virtue”, says that hope works as an intellectual virtue in three ways: “(1) hope that knowledge/truth can be obtained furnishes a motivation for its pursuit; (2) hope imparts qualities to its possessor, such as resilience, perseverance, flexibility, and openness, that aid in the pursuit of knowledge/truth; and (3) hope, through imparting such qualities to its possessor, functions as a kind of method in the pursuit of knowledge/truth.”
Hope in a Christian context
Faith, hope, and charity (or love) are the traditional Christian virtues. In a Christian context, hope is the confidence that God has your back, and will extend His help to you in your efforts to “reach eternal felicity.” Hope is said to be an “infused virtue” (one that is implanted in us by God, not one that we develop ourselves through habit). There ultimately is no hope to be had in the material world and our mortal lives; if we try to put our hope there, we will end in despair (the opposite of hope). Hope is a matter of will, not of intellect: hope “elevate[s] and strengthen[s] our wills” as we work toward unity with God. If we reject God, we end up losing hope (“Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” is legendarily inscribed on the gates to hell).
The philosopher William James believed he had discovered rational grounds for making our opinions about the truth depend to some extent and in some circumstances on our emotional disposition towards it. He defended this approach in his essay “The Will to Believe.”
In short, James said that when
you have to decide between hypotheses and cannot just remain comfortably in doubt,
you are unable to rationally and scientifically decide between hypotheses (no time, no data, competing hypotheses match the data equally well), and
it would be better for you if some particular hypothesis were the truer one
then you are justified in choosing — indeed you ought to choose — the preferred hypothesis as the one to provisionally believe.
For one thing, he notes that for some hypotheses, belief in them can have causal influence on their being true. For instance, if you believe that someone is your friend, and you therefore behave in a friendly way toward them, this may influence them to become your friend if they were previously on the fence about it. If you do not believe that anyone can be trusted, you will never extend trust to anyone, and sure enough you will inhabit a world in which nobody behaves in trustworthy way towards you. There are many things like this in life, James says, where if you treat them as “live hypotheses” you can in fact bring them about, just by orienting your life in such a way as to make a space for them to occupy.
James applied this idea to a sort of generic religious hypothesis (that the most perfect and most eternal things are the important ones, and that this religious outlook underlies the best sort of life). This is an unproven hypothesis, and one that James asserts you have to accept or reject: there’s no middle ground. If you wait until you have air-tight proof either way, you’ll be waiting your whole life — and this amounts to the same thing in practical terms as to reject the hypothesis dogmatically. The risk of accepting the hypothesis if false is the fear that you will have been duped by a fairy tale; the hope of accepting the hypothesis if true is that you don’t waste your “sole chance in life of getting upon the winning side.” Given this balance: “what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?” (This of course resembles Pascal’s Wager.)
James goes further and says that the religious outlook tends to personalize the perfect/eternal in such a way that — as with our beliefs in trust or friendship — our religious beliefs can have causal influence on the truth value of those beliefs. In order to live in a god-filled, hopeful universe, James suspects, you must meet the religious hypothesis half-way: you must extend some belief in its direction in order to receive the flow of evidence that supports the belief in return. Stubborn skepticism and despair becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy (in the same sense as with the person who does not believe people can be trusted), and, according to James, is thereby irrational: “A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” Take the hypnotoad pill, man.
James ends his essay by quoting Fitz James Stephen:
We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? “Be strong and of a good courage.” Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.
Optimism is the belief that things are good, or at least are heading in that direction. It sometimes also includes the belief that we ourselves are doing well or getting better, and that we have some control over our fate. John Dewey preferred the term “meliorism” which emphasized this active element: a meliorist is optimistic that our efforts can make things better.
Is the universe benign, malign, or indifferent? Can people be good to one another, or does self interest make them necessarily antagonistic? Is the future bright or are we doomed? Is life worth living or would it be better had we never been born? Is history a story of progress and enlightenment or an embarrassing chronicle of horrors? Is there a caring God who watches over us, or are we playthings of cruel forces? Optimists know which side of these questions they’re rooting for, and they may be tempted to tilt the scales a bit as they weigh the evidence.
The philosophy of optimism
Optimism has at times been taken to unlikely extremes. There was an 18th-Century vogue for philosophical proofs that the universe we inhabit is not merely good, but “the best of all possible worlds.” The more typical optimist is satisfied with the belief that life is on the whole significantly more good than not.
Optimism at first glance seems to presuppose a scale of good and bad on which you measure your life, or history, or the universe, or whatever, in order to then find it good. Some philosophers have tried another approach to optimism, which is to unconditionally love their life without first judging it in this way. Nietzsche put it this way: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary — but love it.”
Most philosophies and religions are optimistic, even the ones that are very critical of people or very suspicious of the material world. They typically either explain why things are good, or explain how to get out of a bad predicament. LessWrong-style rationalism is full of this sort of optimism: we are plagued by cognitive biases, yet with effort we have the power to more closely approach the truth; artificial intelligence threatens to extinguish human values, but we can learn how to restrain it; death is everyone’s destiny, but perhaps we can be the generation to defeat destiny!
Some philosophies make an effort to show how certain paths to optimism are dead ends but others remain open. If we condition our optimism on being able to avoid things like sickness, aging, and death, the Buddha says, we will inevitably fail — yet we can still transcend suffering. If we lay up treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, where thieves break through and steal, we will be disappointed, says Jesus — but we can lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven and then we’ve got it made in the shade. If we condition our happiness on things that are not in our control, we will be forever at their mercy, says Epictetus — but we can stop doing that, and when we do so, the world is our oyster.
It is a rare philosopher who says “nope; it’s hopeless” — even Schopenhauer, who is usually trotted out as the poster child for pessimism, seems to have left an escape route open to certain exceptional people. The optimist in me thinks that this is a good sign: whatever else they disagree on, the philosophers agree that things are more-or-less okay and maybe even marvelous. The pessimist in me wonders whether philosophers are protesting too much — shouting optimistic words into an uncaring void in a whistling-past-the-graveyard way — or whether there’s a bias at work in which pessimistic philosophers fail to find followers (or publishers) in favor of those who hold out false hopes.
Pessimism considered harmful
Pessimism has become medicalized. Humoral theory held that pessimism was associated with an excess of black bile (from which we get the word “melancholy”); optimism with blood (from which we get the word “sanguine”). Nowadays, excessive pessimism and hopelessness are considered to be pathological symptoms of a medical diagnosis of depression (though not sufficient in themselves for such a diagnosis). If you come to believe that the universe is a cold, uncaring place, that all human effort is pointless vanity as all we come to love in our futile attempts to muffle our howling loneliness decays and is ripped from our fingers by ever-looming death, which is usually preceded by decrepitude, confusion, and painful suffering… you may be asked to consider one of an array of medications that shows promise for treating people who find such concerns to be of urgent import. A certain amount of pessimism is tolerated in the eccentric cranks among us, but above a certain threshold it becomes suspiciously pathological.
Optimism on the other hand is associated with better life outcomes. There’s an obvious correlation/causation problem to be cautious about here, but there has also been a lot of research done that attempts to tease out a possible causal role for optimism. Optimists tend to use engagement-based (as opposed to disengagement-based) coping mechanisms to deal with adversity (addressing vs. avoiding the problem). For example, they take proactive steps to protect their health and wind up healthier as a result. They seem to do better in terms of educational persistence, relationships, and income. A good overview of the research on benefits and drawbacks of optimism can be found in Charles S. Carver, Michael F. Scheier, Suzanne C. Segerstrom “Optimism” Clinical Psychology Review 30 (2010).
“What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” ―George Eliot, Middlemarch
“Suspicion often creates what it suspects.” ―C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
“Is not he a man of real worth who does not anticipate deceit nor imagine that people will doubt his word; and yet who has immediate perception thereof when present?” (Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅣ.ⅹⅹⅹⅲ)
You can extend trust to someone particularly or generally. That is to say, you can trust them to do something (water your plants while you’re on vacation) or trust them more generally (you consider them a trustworthy person). You can trust someone to do what they say they’ll do, to follow-through, to make good on their promises. You can also trust someone with something, that is, you trust that they will be a good caretaker of it. You can also trust someone in the sense that you believe that they are being truthful in what they say. You can also trust someone’s judgement: you trust them to make good decisions; you feel comfortable leaving things in their hands.
You might trust someone by virtue of the role they play in your life. For instance you might trust someone as-a-friend to follow through on your expectations of what friendship entails (e.g. keep secrets). Or you might trust someone as-a-fellow-X (Mason, proletarian, Dodgers fan) to show certain signs of solidarity (e.g. never testify against a fellow-cop). If trust of these sorts is betrayed, this can undermine the pillars of the preexisting relationship (e.g. “I thought you were my friend!”).
Trust might be extended in reciprocal expectation: I behaved in a trustworthy way towards you, so now I can expect that you will honor my trust in return. Two people may work together to establish a relationship of trust by alternatingly extending trust and honoring trust. There’s a sort of prisoners’ dilemma at work here, where each party is most apt to flourish by living a life in which they have relationships of trust, but each relationship of trust requires that they be willing to extend trust in an act that may make them vulnerable.
Trust towards people in general, or by default
You can also have a more or less trusting outlook towards people in general: You might come to assume that most people have more-or-less good intentions, or on the contrary you might come to assume that everyone is ultimately selfish and has ulterior motives for their ostensibly benevolent actions. Excess distrust of that kind can be an overcorrection in the face of bad experiences. The saga of “learning to trust again” when you’ve been hurt in romance is a common human tale. Distrust also seems very contextual: healthy distrust in one context would be an unhealthy level of suspicion in another.
People who abuse trust can sometimes be very crafty about doing so, and difficult to detect. Learning to detect untrustworthy people, or filtering them out of your life, can help you maintain a more trusting attitude in general. This way, you do not need to distrust people in general in order to avoid harm from those people who would abuse your trust. This is a difficult skill, and more of an art than a science, but is an important facet of trust-as-a-virtue.
Humans are so extraordinarily helpless as infants and children, and as a result are so reliant on others, that trust relationships are crucial parts of our early lives. Someone who grew up with abusive or neglectful caregivers may have extraordinary difficulty with trust because they lacked the opportunity to place trust in someone trustworthy as a child.
Sometimes people use “trust” to describe their relationships with institutions or impersonal things. Sometimes this seems mostly metaphorical: trusting gravity to keep your belongings from floating away; trusting that the sun will come up tomorrow. But in the case of human institutions, it’s more of an open question whether “trust” is a metaphor or really is something we can extend to collective endeavors or human-created algorithms: For instance, someone might say that they trust what they read on Wikipedia, or they trust Google to keep their email private, or they trust “the science” about global warming. They might feel betrayed if they trusted their software to keep reliable backups and they find out those backups were corrupted.
Trust seems to be one of those “golden mean” virtues. If you have too little trust, you’ll miss out on important opportunities for cooperation. If you have too much, you’ll be a gullible mark who is easily taken advantage of.
Trust vs. expectation and reliance
Trust is more than mere expectation. You might expect that someone will act in some way because it would be in character for them, or because it would be in their best interests. But if you trust them to act in some way, it seems to imply that you expect them to do so in part because of the trusting relationship you have with them: you trust them to act in such a way because you believe they consider themselves duty-bound to do so — perhaps because of the trust you have extended to them. (And an attitude of “trust, but verify” is hardly one of trust at all.)
This also suggests that in order to trust some person to do something, that person needs to be aware that they are trusted to do that thing, or at least they need to believe that doing that thing is part of what makes them trustworthy. You can’t, in other words, reasonably trust someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, without bothering to communicate your trust to them somehow. If someone betrays your trust, this probably implies that you find them blameworthy for doing so; if so, then it doesn’t make sense to put your trust in someone in such a way that they would be blameless for betraying it (for instance if they didn’t have any way of knowing they were being trusted, or if you trusted them to do something you knew to be impossible, or if they did not accept the trust you offered). You can hope that your doctor cures your cancer; you can trust your doctor to take all reasonable and necessary steps to treat your cancer; but you can’t reasonably trust your doctor to cure your cancer, because it might not be curable.
Not all trust is explicitly granted and accepted, however. Some is implicit. You may extend a certain amount and type of trust to a stranger implicitly. For instance if you stop to ask someone directions, you implicitly trust them not to mislead you. You would be reasonable to feel that they betrayed your trust if they instead sent you on a wild goose chase, even if they never explicitly accepted your trust or never promised not to mislead you. The amount and type of trust that you are willing to implicitly extend in this way is one measurement of your expectations for people. Extending more such trust means you have higher expectations for them (and also, by extension, for yourself). This can be a way of promoting other virtues by setting-the-bar (to trust people to be honest, kind, etc. is also a way of saying I expect people to be honest, kind, etc. and I will judge them poorly if they are not).
Different cultures and subcultures have different expectations of trust: to whom it can be safely extended, in what areas, and to what extent. Violating the trustworthiness expectations of a culture can provoke a sort of exile from that culture in the form of shunning or shaming. Not extending trust to someone in a context where there is a cultural expectation of trust can be seen as insulting. Inter-culture conflicts are sometimes rooted in different trust expectations. Being “multilingual” in your sense of trust can be valuable, particularly if you straddle cultures. You are not merely a passive interpreter of your culture’s trust norms, of course: you also help to shape them. By being somewhat-more-trusting than the norm, you can help move the norm in a more trusting direction.
In my discussion of the virtue of honesty I mentioned Thoreau’s observation that “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak, and another to hear.” If you cannot trust someone to be honest with you, you become deaf to honesty: it becomes more difficult for you to hear the truth. If someone knows that you do not trust them, this may also demotivate them from attending carefully to the the truth, precision, and clarity of what they say to you (“why bother, after all you’re just going to believe what you want to believe”).
Trust and vulnerability
Trust is closely related to vulnerability. When you extend trust to someone, you may be making yourself doubly-vulnerable: the person you trust may not do what you trust them to do (which may have negative consequences for you, e.g. your plants go unwatered and die), and they may betray your trust (which is an additional negative consequence, e.g. you feel a fool for having trusted them). Being vulnerable in this way can require courage.
Extending trust, and accepting the cost in vulnerability to do so, can be a sort of generosity or charity, in some contexts. (If you extend different amounts of trust to people for unfair reasons, this may have implications for justice as a virtue as well.) Because extending trust makes you vulnerable, it is also a way of demonstrating strength. In other words, if you extend trust, you communicate by doing so that you feel you are strong enough to risk a certain amount of vulnerability.
How can we improve in hope, optimism, and trust
Most of the advice I have found about how to improve in these virtues has to do with how to be more hopeful, more optimistic, and more trusting. In other words, it assumes that you have undershot the mark. Advice is harder to come by on how to stop clinging to exhausted hopes, accept that life is vain suffering, and stop being so darned gullible.
Benjamin Franklin, in his essay “The Deformed and Handsome Leg” noted that some people tend to dwell on the negative things in life, others on the positive, and the former are are at a great disadvantage in life. He asserted that the pessimistic outlook is a “disposition… perhaps taken up originally by imitation, and unawares grown into a habit, which though at present strong, may nevertheless be cured.” His cure involves deliberately adopting the habit of redirecting one’s attention away from the negative things in life. This suggests that gratitude and appreciation can be ways of becoming more optimistic.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a modern approach to Franklin’s cure. It is used to combat the persistent pessimistic thoughts that are symptoms of (and may exacerbate) depression, and the cognitive biases that reinforce pessimistic assessments.
Positive psychology researcher Martin Seligman suggested that there is a “learned optimism” that people can cultivate (Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, 1990). You become more optimistic by changing how you describe things that happen in your life. If you describe good things using language that implies that they are “permanent and pervasive,” and bad things with language that implies that they are “temporary and narrowly-focused” an optimistic outlook will result. (And a pessimistic one will result if you get this backwards.) So, for example, rather than describing a negative occurrence as an example of “my bad luck” you describe it as just a one-time setback. This is a sort of “framing” technique used as a mind hack.