Positive Expectations; how to build Hopefulness

The most hopeful I have ever felt was probably just before I set off to university. The least hopeful I have ever felt was probably around the start of the second wave of covid where I live, which also coincided with me realizing I really don’t much like the chemistry department where I’m studying.

Hopelessness isn’t just unpleasant, it also harms my ability to do important things. One of the most important skills to cultivate is sticking at a hard problem. When I am feeling low-hope I notice I am much more likely to give up, dismiss something as impossible, and run away. On high-hope I find a certain sort of thought appear, along the lines of “Oh this is a very, very difficult problem. I guess I just have to think harder”.

In this case I mostly mean a certain sort of system-1-ish hope, rather than planned, thought-out hope. I can at the same time believe that AI is a huge risk and humanity might get wiped out, while still feeling hopeful on an emotional level. When I was feeling the least hopeful, I still knew that vaccines were being given out at a good pace, personal risk to me was low, and I could just leave the department I disliked so much.

So how do we actually build hopefulness? I find a certain sort of thought pattern is important for this, and I think of it as “positive unknown unknowns”. There are two opposites of this, one is the obvious unpleasant unknown unknowns; more subtle is just a lack of belief in positive unknown unknowns.


When I went to uni, I had no idea of what it would be like. What would I study? What sorts of people would I meet? What sorts of clubs and societies would I join? But I was confident that I would enjoy them.

I am now considering my options for the rest of my life. What field will I work in? Where will I work? I now believe that wherever I am, I will be doing interesting work with interesting people.

Examples of the opposite:

During covid, many things can happen: will cases go up so I have to stay inside more? will a new strain arrive? will someone I know catch covid? All of the possible good things are just a return to normalcy, most of the possible bad things are in some sense mysterious.

Also during covid, but also if you live a certain sort of life: All enjoyment must be planned out, there is no spontaneity, if you have nothing in your diary for a given day then you will do nothing that particular day.

(I apologize for talking about covid so much, but it has made a lot of these issues very clear to me in a way that other things did not)

The mental pattern, and how to build it

In a hopeless worldview, all enjoyableness is known and circumscribed. In a hopeful worldview, much of the possible enjoyableness is still out there to be discovered. In some ways this is tautological, isn’t this just what hope is? But since I took so long to figure this out I suspect some people reading this also won’t have figured it out yet.

Now I have a good understanding of what a hopeful mind looks like, but how do we get there?

I think the most important thing is to put yourself in environments where it is actually true that there are positive unknown unknowns. This will help convince your lizard brain that they exist. Some thoughts on how to do this:

  • More social interactions with strangers (ugh I know). Small cost, high potential reward of an interesting discussion or new friend

  • Say yes to things, humans have a strong bias for not doing interesting and enjoyable things, just because they’ve never done them before

  • Related to (and necessary for) the above two, be more agentic, actually do things

  • Avoid AT ALL COSTS the sort of face-saving-based power structures where you can only lose, and never win. I expect most LWers do this instinctively already.

  • I wish I knew/​could think of more examples

There is clearly a virtuous cycle effect as well. Having stronger belief in positive unknown unknowns tends to drive exactly the sort of behaviour that leads to that belief. As I am not a master hope-haver there are probably a good few techniques here that I didn’t think about.