Hope And Optimism: How They Differ (Facts You Didn’t Know)

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. – Albert Einstein

Hope and optimism are not one and the same thing, even though they are both positive states of mind and closely linked to our mental well-being. However, we often use them interchangeably.

So, how do they differ? We solve the mystery here, along with a bunch of interesting facts about each.

And then, there is a trick question waiting for you in the end!

Hope Vs Optimism: How They Differ

The Cambridge Dictionary says, hope is “something good that you want to happen in the future, or a confident feeling about what will happen in the future,” and optimism is “the quality of being full of hope and emphasizing the good parts of a situation or a belief that something good will happen.”

Hope involves a person’s beliefs about themselves and the actions they plan and take to reach their desired goals.

Optimism, as used in daily language, points to a “glass-half-full” person. We often imply that optimists were born optimistic, though experts hold a different view.

hope vs optimism

Hope And Optimism | Psychological Differences

Hope is a stable individual state of mind that is event-specific, depends on external situations, and includes a successful sense of agency and pathways.

Optimism is a character trait or strength that is event-independent, does not depend on external situations, and in which individuals expect desired outcomes to happen in the future and undesired outcomes not to happen.

Martin Seligman, regarded as the Father of Positive Psychology, found an optimistic explanatory style is a trainable skill rather than an inborn trait.

So, you can teach yourself to be more optimistic.

In 2006, Patricia Bruininks & Bertram F. Malle carried out three studies to look into the conceptual and psychological differences between six future-oriented states: hope, optimism, want, desire, wish, and joy.

Overall, they found, “hope is most closely related to wishing but distinct from it. Most important, hope is distinct from optimism by being an emotion, representing more important but less likely outcomes, and by affording less personal control.”

In more recent research to study if hope differs from optimism, Simon Bury, Michael Wenzel, & Lydia Woodyatt found,

“Hope is distinct from optimism and positive expectation; hope is tapped into when odds are low yet individuals are highly invested in the outcome.”

Hope and optimism are both positive motivational and positive expectational states, which are hallmarks of psychological health.

1.Event-specific and depends on external situationsEvent-independent and does not depend on external situations
2.A state of mind, like a feeling or an emotionA natural mental outlook, like an attitude or a trait
3.More about the ability to work through with an action plan to reach the hoped-for goalMore about positive expectations about an event with no need to work for it
Table: Hope vs Optimism

Hope Vs Optimism | An Example of Their Difference

A good example to understand how they are different:

Your friend plans a mountain trek. They check the weather and find the forecast sunny and warm for that day. So naturally, they become optimistic as they expect the weather to cooperate with their plans.

“The weather is going to be fine and I’ll have a great trek!”

But if the forecast is cloudy with a chance of rain, your friend may start hoping the weather will become better on that day (while keeping their rain-gear ready), but they may not be too optimistic about it.

“I think the weather will turn out to be better than what they predict, and I’ll have a good trek.”

So, even when popular wisdom says hope and optimism are overlapping and similar, psychological science suggests they are two distinct ideas.

Hope: 7 Unique Questions (Answered For You).

Hope And Optimism In Positive Psychology

Both hope and optimism are positive mental states. Both motivate towards a better future. Both involve favorable expectations of desired outcomes in the future.

We study hope and optimism in positive psychology as the VIA Strength of Hope and Optimism. Both are vital pointers and predictors of our psychological health.

Both hope and optimism emerge from a combination of genetic, cultural, environmental, and historical factors.

Peterson & Seligman, 2001, in their classification of character strengths, grouped hope and optimism as one trait. Download the VIA Classification here.

An understanding of hope is important to find out more about basic human responses as goal-setting, commitment, coping, and change. (Averill, 1994).

According to Scheier and Carver, 1985, optimism is the generalized expectancy that the future will be positive.

Hope and optimism are part of our cognitive, emotional, and motivational outlooks toward the future, both featuring the belief that pleasant events will outweigh bad events in the future. (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

Hope and optimism are often used interchangeably in the scientific literature (Gottschalk, 1974; Maier, Peterson, Schwartz, 2000)

A study titled Hope and optimism as related to life satisfaction, published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found “that believing one can achieve goals overall leads to increased well-being above believing in one’s ability to generate means to overcome obstacles.”

According to positive psychologists, we can learn to increase both our hope and optimism levels, and get other parts of our life to work better.

  • Raising optimism can raise your resilience and help you cope better with hardships.
  • Raising hope can place you in a better position to reach your goals and strengthen your grit.

Understanding Hope

A. What Is Hope

Hope is a feeling related to motivation. When you’re hopeful, you are more likely to have faith that you can reach your goals. To hope is to motivate ourselves to use and grow our abilities to fulfill our desires.

Hope: A positive feeling and a state of motivation that arises from the belief that one has agency (power) and pathways (means) to achieve one’s goals.

According to David Hume, hope is a mixture of two different emotions — pain and pleasure. According to The Belief-Desire-Intention Model of Agency, hope comprises two elements — a desire for something, and a belief that the desire will likely come to fruition.

Charles Snyder, the father of Hope Theory, felt that hope includes certain goals and practical pathways to reach those goals for a better future.

Snyder wrote:

Hope is defined as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways.

According to Snyder and his collaborators, people with “high hope” have positive illusions. They have a positive view of their realities, possibilities, and opportunities.

Whereas people with “low hope” suffer from a distortion of their reality and harbor denial and repression.

Research by Snyder and colleagues showed that hope can make ill people feel better, improve their mood, strengthen their motivation to undergo treatment, and may even increase the chance that treatments are successful.

Hope is not just wishing. Hope is an emotion that occurs when you focus on a positive outcome, and then follow it through with an action plan.

B. Types of Hope

According to Julie Neraas, Associate Professor at Hamline University, and author of Apprenticed To Hope: A Sourcebook for Difficult Times, there are 7 types of hope.

  1. Inborn Hope: Children are born with this kind of hope, and it is their basic, natural disposition unless adults threaten it.
  2. Chosen Hope: This is the type of hope in which you choose to believe in the best positive result out of all possibilities.
  3. Borrowed Hope: This is another person hoping for the best for you, and you become hopeful of yourself borrowing their hope for you.
  4. Bargainer’s Hope: It is the type of hope we bargain for when facing a daunting challenge, or when a crisis crashes into our life.
  5. Unrealistic Hope: This kind of hope is hoping for far-fetched, unlikely, and improbable things to happen.
  6. Mature Hope: We base this type of hope on an understanding that however things turn out, they are worthwhile.
  7. False Hope: This type of hope is built around a magical wish or a fantasy. It results from a distortion of reality.
False Hope? There's No Such Thing | Charlie Teo | TEDxSydney
Is There A Thing As False Hope?

C. Research On Hope

Hope has a stable individual difference. People with high hopes more often think about different and specific ways to reach their goals. Also, they are more frequent in telling themselves they can achieve their goals.

A study by psychologists at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine in Chicago tried to find out whether these two are really interchangeable or different.

The research team of Drew Fowler, Emily Weber, Scott Klappa, and Steven A. Miller started by trying to replicate two previous studies—a 2004 study that found these two to be separate, and a 2009 study that found both to be similar, and part of a “goal attitude”.

They recruited 417 participants from Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) living in the United States for the study, comprising 78% Caucasians, 6% African Americans, 6% Hispanics, and 6% Asians.

The researchers employed the 12-item Adult Hope Scale developed by psychologist Rick Snyder to measure hope, and the Life Orientation Test (LOT-R) to measure optimism.

They confirmed what we already knew: While hope and optimism had overlapping features, each was also unique.

The study authors wrote:

The findings of this study suggest hope and optimism may be simultaneously intrinsic to each other, as well as contain unique properties on their own. It is our interpretation that this flexibility may aid individuals employing these factors to achieve their goals, or when expecting some outcome in their future.

How To Hope so it works out in your favor? Find Out Here.

Understanding Optimism

A. What Is Optimism

Optimism is more akin to your expectations for the future. When you’re optimistic, you’re likely to believe what you hope for will eventually happen.

Optimism: The extent to which people expect their desired outcomes to happen in the future, and expect their undesired outcomes to not occur.

Michael Scheier and Charles Carver in 1985 defined optimism as:

A generalized expectancy that good… outcomes will generally occur when confronted with problems across important life domains. The global generalized tendency to believe that one will generally experience good versus bad outcomes in life.

Another way psychology defines optimism is via the “explanatory style”. This is the approach given by Martin Seligman, who said:

The basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.

Optimism in a simple sentence is the attitude of looking at the bright side of things.

B. Types of Optimism

Optimism has been classified into many types. Here we talk about the 6 main types:

  1. Comparative Optimism: This means believing you’re more likely to encounter positive events as compared to others.
  2. Nihilistic Optimism: They believe life doesn’t come with any inbuilt meaning, and it is up to them to find and create a meaningful life for themselves.
  3. Realistic Optimism: If you have this type of optimism, then you take healthy and balanced risks while looking to reach a positive future outcome.
  4. Unrealistic Optimism: Those who are unrealistically optimistic think the scales always remain tilted in their favor. This leads them to make potentially riskier and unsafe decisions that are far removed from reality.
  5. Dispositional Optimism: This is the global expectation that more desirable things will happen in the future than undesirable things.
  6. Philosophical Optimism: This is the belief that the present moment is the best out of all possible future outcomes.

C. Research On Optimism

Research by Martin Seligman, Father of Modern Positive Psychology, on optimism led him to the finding that an optimistic explanatory style protected against depression resulting from learned helplessness.

A person’s explanatory style is the way they usually engage in explaining life events, by attributing them to underlying causes in terms of:

  1. Internality – taking the wrong events or results personally
  2. Stability – thinking and believing it will last for a long time
  3. Globality – assuming it has all-pervasive effects on their life

People with a pessimistic explanatory style think of the causes of their life events as internal (“it’s my fault”), stable (“it’s something that’s going to be forever”), and global (“it’s going to affect everything I try to do”).

While those with an optimistic explanatory style think the opposite way, as the cause of an event in their lives is due to external factors, it is temporary, and it does not involve all aspects of their lives.

Seligman often found the difference between people who give up when facing adversity and those who persevere under the same restrictive conditions, is the way they explain bad and good events. This is the hallmark of resilient people.

Hope Vs Expectation: Are They Same?

Hope and expectations are not the same. Hope means a desire for something to happen, with a plan and intention to work towards it. Expectation means an act of foreseeing or foretelling an event. Positive expectations are similar to optimism.

In a related sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon studied in psychology in which an expectation causes an event to occur.

Famous Quotes On Hope And Optimism

▪ To live without hope is to cease to live. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

▪ All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope. – Alexandre Dumas

▪ We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

▪ Hope is being able to see that there is a light despite all the darkness. – Desmond Tutu

▪ Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. – Hellen Keller

▪ Hope is … not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. – Vaclav Havel

▪ Urgent optimism is the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success. – Jane McGonigal

▪ Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. – Noam Chomsky

▪ Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility

▪ Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person – you already feel fortunate. – Daniel Kahneman

Final Words

For a fulfilling life, we need both. Let’s close this with what Drew Fowler concluded:

The use of these different strategies may suggest that hope and optimism, like musical instruments, can be enjoyed on their own, but can create an even more powerful impact when they harmonize together.

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According to research, those who are high on optimism and hope fare better at handling uncertainty. They are naturally less afraid of the unknown.

Now, here is the trick question:

Is it hope or optimism when you buy a lottery ticket and dream of winning the top prize money?

Books to read:

  1. Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life – Casey Gwinn and Chan Hellman
  2. A Prescription for Living with Purpose: Maintaining Hope, Healing, and Connection – Adam Meadows
  3. The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain – Tali Sharot
  4. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life – Martin E. P. Seligman

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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