Hope can be palpable and elusive at the same time, both reasonable and independent of logic. Yet this independence from logic is not synonymous with indifference to reason, but a victory over it. Hope has its own logic, one that changes lives for the better.

In its beginning, psychological research on resilience (psychological persistence through the hardships of life), postulated that psychological endurance is “a remarkable skill,” a trait that only a few privileged individuals possess. Today, however, psychologists Malka Margalit and Orly Idan noted that the scientific community has changed its perspective and has put forward the idea that resilience comes from the “daily magic” of ordinary human normative resources. The definition of this resilience is also interesting: it means to obtain positive and unexpected results—more precisely, to obtain a functional behaviour despite the risks of failure. While this definition may seem slightly opaque when taken out of the context of its evolution, it is proof that researchers no longer see people’s resilience to the ups and downs of life as a characteristic (which you may or may not have), but as the result of a development of the person in the face of risky or challenging circumstances, which serves as a lesson (it is normative) for the subsequent experience.

For a Christian who is used to seeing hope as one of the three pillars of healthy spirituality that the apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13—”faith, hope, and love,”—it is very instructive to affirm this understanding with what psychologists have discovered on hope.

Hope can be learned

The formal study of hope is linked to the name of Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who pioneered positive psychology, known internationally for his research at the intersection of clinical psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology. Snyder defined hope as “a learned pattern of thinking,” a set of beliefs and thoughts that juggle two relatively distinct ways of relating to our goal: “agent” thinking (which refers to our determination of reaching our goal) and “path-oriented” thinking (which focuses on our ability to achieve different goals). Agent thinking translates into “I can achieve my goals.” Path-oriented thinking says, “I can think of many ways to get what I want.” Snyder, like his colleagues (Lopez, Shorey), said that there is a reciprocal relationship between hopeful thinking and success in various fields: hope helps to achieve goals, and achieving goals strengthens hope.

But Snyder took a step further in the search for hope: he wanted to do a quantitative x-ray of it, and to that end, he discovered that hope has three components. The first is setting some goals. This first principle scientifically contradicts the false saying that “the secret of a happy life is having no expectations.” If a hopeless person could be happy, then this saying might be true, but if we need hope for happiness, hope by definition implies having expectations, aiming for something. The second component of hope is identifying effective ways to achieve our desired goals, to achieve our expectations. Finally, the third component of hope is to find the motivation to set out on the paths we have identified, on the path to our goals.

Sometimes hope has an unfavourable reputation in which it is associated with wishful thinking. This is because it involves a dose of risk, an emotional investment in a purpose and other variables that require control and are sometimes subject to operating laws that elude our management. But hope, as science sees it, is a fascinating construct in terms of the vulnerability to which it exposes the hopeful person.

Hope is a very complex construct: it can be personal, interpersonal (i.e. it may require the intervention of others), and it can have different social frameworks. It can even spring from a failure, provided it is constructively integrated, as a lesson.

Increased hope has been associated with high academic performance and athletic performance, better physical and psychological well-being, and better interpersonal relationships. People who have a high level of hope do not react by freezing in the face of the obstacles they encounter as they pursue their goals, but see them as challenges to be overcome. They use solution-oriented thinking to find alternative routes to reach their desired destination.

Hope has a genetic component, but it is also influenced by environmental factors. For example, a relatively recent study has shown that many Holocaust survivors had permanent and damaging brain structure changes that were visible on MRI, which could be explained by the trauma suffered during detention and torture. Ivan Rektor, the Czech neurologist who coordinated the research, says the affected brain regions are responsible for responding to stress, memory, motivation, emotion, learning and behaviour. Just as interesting is that similar changes have been found even in the children and grandchildren of survivors, a sign that the effects of trauma are transgenerational—a new idea for scientific researchers, but an old one for Bible students.

It is true that psychologists have even managed to propose a scale for measuring hope, thus contributing to the scientific objectification of hope. But even the most reputable efforts to date—such as Snyder’s scale—are exposed to methodological vulnerabilities, which experts acknowledge. No matter how hard they have tried to map its ramifications so far, hope still has some unknown roots, which hold a mysterious, even mystical, aura.

The unknown that surrounds hope and that shrouds in mystery the exact way in which hope manages to lift us when we apparently have no resources, precisely this unknown is what makes our daily lives more knowable and easier to carry.

In the conflict of the two great existential ideologies: evolutionism and theism, the existence of something like hope is a powerful advocate for the existence of a God. Why? Because, from an evolutionary point of view, hope should not exist. Although many evolutionists see hope as an ancestral custom, a concern of limited people in terms of education, hope is still strictly the prerogative of people. Only people can nurture it, because they are the only ones who benefit from the life services of an evolutionary upgrade: reason. But if man is at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, as the most advanced of animals, how is it that a being with so many strengths in comparison to his less evolved ancestors has this embarrassing flaw called ‘faith’ in something better? If hope were an illusion, how did mankind come to nurture it? An evolutionist might answer that hope is a skill developed in the evolutionary process of adaptation because it is useful to man, since science is full of examples of the usefulness of hope for our daily lives, even for survival. If so, however, evolutionists should be the first apologists for hope in the world, instead of the great apostles of self-destructive nihilism that they seem to be today.

Hope can be learned from others

Evolutionary psychologists have to deal with even greater dissonances within their field. Cecilia Heyes, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford, said that the image that some evolutionary psychologists construct and present about the human mind is not supported by the results of research in the field. Heyes referred to the characterisation of the mind as a collection of cognitive instincts that have evolved over time and said that this contradicts the results of studies showing that people actually have “cognitive gadgets” built during individual development and in their interactions with other people.

Not only thought patterns, but also emotions can raise equally challenging questions. An eloquent example is gratitude, whose therapeutic and curative effects scientist cannot overestimate; it has been shown to be extremely beneficial, even for the healthiest of us. For example, a very recent study of young people suffering from drug addiction documented how those who had a tendency to show gratitude for what they had were also those who had the greatest chance of recovery.

Hope and gratitude seem both to be legacies of another world, one that was built on coordinates completely foreign to those of an evolution centred on conflict, on the defeat of the weak, on death. Likewise, love and faith, so foreign to evolutionary utilitarianism, seem to be allusions to another world—a bright one that, if we look carefully and honestly around us, provides no indication that we could have created it ourselves or that it could have appeared at random. And if it did not appear at random, but with a purpose, then, from a scientific point of view, we have already secured the first component of hope. The other two depend on us.

Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.