Why Do We Need Hope?
WHAT if Daniel, the young cancer victim described at the outset of the preceding article, had maintained his high hopes? Would he have beaten cancer? Would he be alive today? Even the most ardent proponents of hope would probably stop short of making such claims. And therein lies an important point. Hope should not be oversold. It is no cure-all, no panacea.
In an interview with CBS News, Dr. Nathan Cherney warned about the danger of overplaying the power of hope when dealing with very sick patients: “We’ve had situations of husbands berating their wives that they haven’t been doing enough meditation, that they haven’t been thinking positively enough.” Dr. Cherney added: “This whole school of thought created an illusion of control, and when people do poorly, it’s as if to say they haven’t managed to control their tumor well enough, and that’s not fair.”
In truth, those combating a terminal illness are engaged in an exhausting, consuming battle. Adding guilt to their already heavy burden is surely the last thing that their loved ones would want to do. Should we conclude, then, that hope is without value?
Not at all. The same doctor, for instance, specializes in palliative care—that is, treatments focusing, not on fighting disease directly or even on prolonging life, but on making the patient’s life more comfortable and pleasant as long as the fight lasts. Such doctors believe firmly in the value of treatments that lead to a happier state of mind, even in the very sick. There is considerable evidence that hope can do that—and more.
The Value of Hope
“Hope is powerful therapy,” asserts medical journalist Dr. W. Gifford-Jones. He reviewed various studies carried out to determine the value of emotional support given to terminally ill patients. Presumably, this type of support helps people to maintain a more hopeful and positive outlook. One 1989 study found that patients who received such support survived longer, whereas recent research has been less conclusive on that score. However, studies have confirmed that patients who receive emotional support suffer less depression and less pain than do those without it.
Consider another study that focused on the role of optimism and pessimism in coronary heart disease (CHD). A group of over 1,300 men were carefully evaluated as to whether they had an optimistic or a pessimistic way of looking at life. A follow-up ten years later found that over 12 percent of those men had suffered some form of CHD. Among them, the pessimists outnumbered the optimists by nearly 2 to 1. Laura Kubzansky, assistant professor of health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health, comments: “Most of the evidence for the notion that ‘thinking positively’ is good for your health has been anecdotal—this study provides some of the first hard medical evidence for this idea in the arena of heart disease.”
Some studies have found that those who rate their own health as poor actually fare worse in the wake of surgery than do those who rate their health as optimal. Even longevity has been linked with optimism. One study looked at how the elderly are affected by positive and negative views of aging. When older people were exposed to fleeting messages linking the aging process with increased wisdom and experience, they were thereafter found to walk with increased strength and energy. In fact, the improvement was equivalent to the results of a 12-week exercise program!
Why do such emotions as hope, optimism, and a positive outlook seem to benefit health? Perhaps scientists and doctors do not yet understand the human mind and body well enough to provide definitive answers. Still, experts who study the subject can make educated guesses. For instance, one professor of neurology suggests: “It feels good to be happy and hopeful. It’s an enjoyable state that produces very little stress, and the body thrives in those conditions. It’s one more thing that people can do for themselves to try to stay healthy.”
This notion may strike some doctors, psychologists, and scientists as ground breaking, but it is hardly new to students of the Bible. Nearly 3,000 years ago, wise King Solomon was inspired to put this thought in writing: “A heart that is joyful does good as a curer, but a spirit that is stricken makes the bones dry.” (Proverbs 17:22) Note the balance reflected here. This verse does not say that a joyful heart will cure any ailment but simply that it “does good as a curer.”
In fact, it might be fair to ask, If hope were a medicine, what doctor would not prescribe it? Moreover, hope has benefits that extend far beyond the realm of health.
Optimism, Pessimism, and Your Life
Researchers have found that optimists benefit in many ways from their positive outlook. They tend to perform better in school, at work, and even on the athletic field. For example, a study was made of a women’s track team. The coaches provided a thorough assessment of the women’s pure athletic abilities. At the same time, the women themselves were surveyed and their level of hope carefully assessed. As it turned out, the women’s measure of hope was a far more accurate predictor of their performance than were all the statistics evaluated by their coaches. Why does hope have such a powerful influence?
Much has been learned by studying the opposite of optimism—pessimism. During the 1960’s, experiments yielded an unexpected finding regarding animal behavior, leading researchers to coin the phrase “learned helplessness.” They found that humans too can suffer from a form of this syndrome. For example, human test subjects were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told that they could learn to stop it by pressing a sequence of buttons. They succeeded in stopping the noise.
A second group was told the same thing—but pressing the buttons had no effect. As you can imagine, many among that second group developed feelings of helplessness. In later tests, they were hesitant to take any action at all. They were convinced that nothing they did would make any difference. Even in that second group, though, the optimists refused to give in to such a helpless frame of mind.
Dr. Martin Seligman, who helped to design some of those early experiments, was moved to make a career of studying optimism and pessimism. He delved into the kind of thinking exhibited by people who were prone to view themselves as helpless. Such pessimistic thinking, he concluded, hampers people in many of life’s endeavors or even paralyzes them into inaction. Seligman summarizes pessimistic thinking and its effects this way: “Twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise.”
Again, such conclusions may seem new to some today, but they have a ring of familiarity to students of the Bible. Note this proverb: “Have you shown yourself discouraged in the day of distress? Your power will be scanty.” (Proverbs 24:10) Yes, the Bible clearly explains that discouragement, with its negative thoughts, will sap you of power to act. What, though, can you do to fight pessimism and bring more optimism and hope into your life?
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Hope can do a great deal of good