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A Journey from Optimism to Hope

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A Journey from Optimism to Hope
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    A Journey from Optimism to Hope Rowena Morrow Prospective ServicesPO Box 702Brentford Square VIC 3131rowena@pspl.com.au  Abstract:  A journey from optimism to hope documents how the optimism/pessimismdichotomy can be overturned to a concept laden with agency. Hope Theory has great applicability to engagement with the future. This piece clarifies the concept of optimism and illustrates why it is not useful in a futures context; it then investigates Hope Theory as a possible successor.    Introduction Optimism is a concept which is often compared to being pessimistic. Optimism is usuallydescribed as ‘helpful’ while pessimism is usually dismissed as ‘getting in the way’. Thisdichotomy is interesting, especially in times such as these. The future for many people is notoptimistic. There are societal and environmental challenges heading our way in the 21 st  century. Those who try and warn us about these are usually labelled as ‘pessimistic’ whilethose who tell us not to worry, that we will be saved are regarded as ‘optimists’.This dichotomy leaves one feeling rather ambivalent. Surely both perspectives havesomething useful to contribute and also have their dangers. Too much optimism can leave usin no state to prepare for the challenges ahead, while too much pessimism can leave us with afeeling of hopelessness.So some questions start to emerge when looking at optimism, pessimism, and the future.What is optimism and how does it inform our view of the future? The follow up questionthen, is optimism important? Is pessimism more important? What role does hope play in allthis?There are large amounts of psychological research given to the concept of optimism. MartinSeligman is a front runner in this subject and has written many books on how having anoptimistic outlook can change one’s life. Having read much of his work, it became clear thatoptimism by itself was not explaining enough about what encourages action in individualswhen they are faced with dilemmas and goals – where is the agency? Although optimism isable to be learned 1 , there is a nagging doubt that changing one’s disposition to events oraltering one’s explanatory mindset was going to result in action.Hope theory was been mentioned in one of the literature reviews on optimism. A follow upemail to the pre-eminent researcher in the field – Prof. C.R Snyder, at the University of Kansas resulted in a Fedex envelope of resources being delivered. 2  Having read these and a number of pieces on images of the future, the conclusion has beenreached that hope is a powerful concept to utilise when exploring the future. The theory of Hope conceptualizes it as ‘learned thinking pattern…(with) manifestations in overt behaviourthat can be objectively observed…Hope is one’s belief in the ability to pursue goals.’ 3  Hope is used as a concept in Futures Studies and it is the author’s belief that we should bemore aware of the psychological basis on which this concept rests. Hope can be used as atypology – high and low hope types. It can also be used as a way to influence behaviour and isinstrumental in enacting preferred futures. Hope has a future-orientation as ‘a positive futureis made more likely by goal-directed thoughts and actions occurring in the present moment’. 4  30 years worth of studies on Hope have shown that hopeful belief is directly linked to hopefulbehaviours which in turn strengthen hopeful thoughts. 5  The interest for the futurist is that hope can be identified as one of the motivating factors inhuman history and as such has momentous agentic qualities. If we deal in the creation of preferred futures, then identifying methods through which we can assist the individual’smovement towards action on these futures will be of value to the outcome of our projects. The   ability to identify high and low hope types in an organisation or group will potentially adddepth to any backcasting exercise. Also the propensity for high hope people to enjoy the  process of achieving goals (pathway setting and motivation) is a powerful hook on which tohang many futures tools and concepts.The premise of this piece is that being a futurist is about developing preferred futures. I willnot be discussing hope in terms of the extrapolation of what we already have, I amspecifically interested in the interaction between hope and the future we wish to create. I think this interaction will be useful to both the organisational or consultant futurist and thoseworking on a larger scale to create social foresight. Preferred futures Wendell Bell identified three assumptions that underlie Futures Studies:1.   humans by their behaviour constantly shape their natural and social environmentsand, in doing so, shape their own future, although not always in ways they intend orunderstand2.   disciplined and valid prospective thinking can help people shape their environmentsand their futures effectively and responsibly3.   explicit and objective moral analysis can help people responsibly create desirablefutures 6  In addition to these the Integral perspective investigates the future through a framework inwhich the following are viewed:1.   the specific ways that stakeholders construct meaning and significance2.   culturally derived perspectives, rules and systems of meaning3.   the social infrastructure, including people’s concrete skills, behaviour and actions4.   the nature and dynamics of the relevant societal structures and systems 7  With these guidelines in mind, we can step out and develop scenarios, run visioning processesor use other methods through which individuals can envision their desired or preferredfutures. The point at which we can sometimes come adrift is at the point of action…what arethe steps required in the present to generate the futures which are envisaged. How do wedevelop momentum within the organisation or individual to want to take those steps and tokeep the end point in mind when challenges appear (which they surely will) and to make theappropriate changes to the path when required? I believe that the development of hopefulfutures, those which take account of the psychological processes that surround hope, take us astep closer to this goal. Developing images of the future The point of developing images of possible futures is to ‘move away from a passive orfatalistic acceptance of what may happen to an active and confident participation in creatingpositively desired futures’. 8 Rubin argues that images of the future held by individuals can bestudied to reveal how they perceive their present reality.   Each individual’s idea of the future, together with the prevailing social facts andcommonly shared ideas and expectations, had a contributory influence on the generaldirection of human decision-making and actions in the present day. 9  Images of the future are used by humans to orient themselves by holding their future hopesand dreams and behaving in accordance with them. Ingvar states that people ‘instinctively andconstantly develop plans for the future.’ 10 This scenario planning provides templates forprocessing information and ‘provides contextual frameworks to organize …observations of past and present, and the future implications that they conjecture.’ 11 This natural ability tothink in scenarios and hold future goals as a guide for present behaviour is central to theactivities which surround Futures Studies. Further, the ability of the futurist to tap into theseinnate qualities of human cognition will be enhanced by understanding the way in whichpeople hold these goals.Burt and van Heijden refer to scenarios as a philosophy of thinking about the future. In astudy of futures projects in small and medium enterprises they came to the conclusion that:Managers need to stay with developments and continue to make timely adaptations andadjustments in light of unexpected events as required. 12  This comment, illustrates that it is not only the goals developed through these scenarios thatare important, it is also crucial that the pathways to achieving the goals are identified andflexible enough to encompass uncertainty. This is common theme in futures projects, once thepreferred future has been envisaged and a direction agreed upon, what mechanisms can be putinto place to keep the organisation on track to achieve them? How can the cognitive capacitiesof the individuals within the organisation be utilised to deliver flexibility to make changes tothe path in order to deal with challenges, whilst still keeping the goal in mind?One way could be through utilising the human need to be positive. It is commonly believedthat people will work towards optimistic future goals, not towards pessimistic ones, and it isthis movement to action which is of interest here. Optimism To develop a view on what optimism is, the first port of call was the dictionary – a definitionwas found as follows: Optimism : 1. disposition to hope for the best; tendency to look on the bright side of things. 2. belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil. 3. the doctrine that the existingworld is the best of all possible worlds. 4. the belief that goodness pervades reality. 13  The important points in this definition are that optimists believe that the existing world is thebest of all possible worlds; hence any optimistic futures will be an extrapolation of that whichhas gone before. Also the tendency to look on the bright side, the attitude that ‘things will beright, mate’ comes into play here. Having investigated the common usage definition, the nextstep was the psychological literature for a cognitive, emotional and behavioural definition. Optimism as a psychological state   Optimism has many facets which have been investigated through psychological research;however critics suggest that many of the lines of enquiry have been ‘surprisingly uniform, somuch so that an optimism bandwagon has been created, within psychology as well as thegeneral public’. 14 The definition of optimism which has been suggested by psychologists is:a mood or attitude associated with an expectation about the social or material future -one which the evaluator regards as socially desirable, to his or her advantage, or for hisor her pleasure 15  Hence there is no objective optimism as each individual will develop expectation about whatis desirable  for them and these may be similar to others or in direct conflict. Optimism has ahigh emotional content which means it can motivate action and as such is seen, especially bythe self help movement, to be a desirable state of existence, however many of the negativeaspects of such optimistic action are rarely studied and research into resource dilemmas hasilluminated some drawbacks to having an optimistic view point.Resource dilemmas research has found that as uncertainty over the optimal collective harvestsize of a resource increased, optimistic views and behaviour resulted in over-harvesting aspeople fell back onto the ‘it’ll be right mate’ and made harvesting choices with very littleinformation. People can even ignore information if they are optimistic if it does not accordwith what they believe, i.e. fishermen with a number of good catches will believe that theseare set to continue even in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.  16 Taylor and Brownfound that the future-oriented aspects of optimism are likely to support relatively high, evenpotentially unrealistic, aspirations. 17   Optimism as Human Nature The development of optimism as a psychological field of study began as the view thatoptimism was part of human nature. It was seen as illusory, negative and prolonging humansuffering; the argument being that it was better to face reality. 18 Psychological health wasmeasured by one’s ability to accurately perceive reality. 19 During the 1970’s, cognitivepsychologists began to challenge some of these theories and found that optimism was used tomaintain one’s ego in the most flattering way possible by recasting the oneself as central to allevents, taking credit for good events and blaming external factors for those which are bad. 20  There was another theorist who posited that optimism was what drove human evolution. In1979, Tiger speculated that because optimism has future component, once humans began tobe able to think about what was to come (i.e. death) those who were able to cast this in anoptimistic light prospered, while those who did not, perished. Hence those who survived this,and their descendents, process found that optimism was ‘easy to think, easy to learn andpleasing’. 21   Optimism as individual difference At the same time as Tiger was writing there was a focus on optimism by theorists who wereinterested in what drove individual differences. This generated three major groups of theory;explanatory style, dispositional optimism and realistic optimism.
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