Study of hope and optimism: New paper examines research in emerging fields


How does practicing hope and optimism benefit or harm us?


Credit: John Templeton Foundation

A new paper published by the John Templeton Foundation explores the latest scientific and philosophical research on the related but distinct virtues of hope and optimism. The 45-page white paper, written by Michael Milona, a philosophy professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, examines findings on the benefits and risks involved in both hope and optimism. Milona’s summary gave particular focus to the results of a three-year, $4.4 million project led by Samuel Newlands at Notre Dame and Andrew Chignell at the University of Pennsylvania, which funded projects by more than 29 researchers worldwide on topics on the effects of hope and optimism in education, faith, healthcare, politics, and more.


Milona’s white paper surveys more than 145 sources from the last 50 years, with special attention to new work in the past decade. According to his analysis, philosophers and psychologists view optimism and hope as distinct but related traits. Optimism is generally categorized as being dispositional (involving a general tendency to expect things to go well) or contextualized (being oriented around a specific goal). Optimism can give motivation, improve health, and help people to cope in tough times. At the same time, optimism can run the risk of being untethered from reality, which may set people up for disappointment.

While optimism is the belief that a good outcome will occur, hope, Milona writes, is “something we can hold on to even when we’ve lost confidence.” Hope is connected with both belief and desire. Though often allied with positive emotions, it can also connect with negative emotions such as fear. 

Critics of hope can cast it as overconfidence, demotivation, or otherworldliness, but as with optimism, hope can motivate us, and be a primary factor in our personal identities. In religious and secular outlooks, hope figures significantly in how we think about the reality of death — both as we approach life’s end and contemplate what might happen after we die.

Milona also examines several sub-varieties of hope, including “Christian Hope” — which emphasizes confidence even when one is uncertain of the details — and “Pragmatist Hope,” which emphasizes flexibility, a commitment to what works, and taking the role of a participant rather than observer. He quotes Cornel West’s 2008 book Hope on a Tightrope: “Hope,” West says, “enacts the stance of the participant who actively struggles against the evidence.”


Founded in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation supports research and dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. The Foundation funds work on subjects ranging from black holes and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. It also encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, theologians, and the public at large.

With $3.5 billion in assets and annual grants of approximately $115 million, the Foundation ranks among the 25 largest grantmaking foundations in the United States. Headquartered outside Philadelphia, its philanthropic activities have engaged all major faith traditions and extended to more than 190 countries around the world.

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