The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


On Internet message boards, the dominant attitude was upbeat. People exhorted her to “stay positive.” There were even pop-up ads when she clicked on to health advice pages, selling a teddy bear named “Hope.” When the sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was surprised how coercive she found the insistence—by medical professionals, by her friends—to keep optimistic. Her subsequent account Smile or Die describes how the positive psychology movement has co-opted hope. The movement insists on a link between a positive attitude about the future and improved well-being. Hope and optimism have become synonymous, both emerging as positive sorts of expectation that can, and should, be manufactured at will.

Can hope really press back the march of cancerous cells? There’s probably no harm in finding out. Except that Ehrenreich also cites a 2004 study that suggests that continually looking on the bright side of a cancer diagnosis—“benefit finding,” one of the techniques advised to stay positive—did not always help patients. A hopeful outlook might make life easier for carers and family members, but many of the patients themselves found it alienating, even guilt-inducing, and it prevented them from acknowledging and expressing the FEAR and ANGER they also felt.

In fact, the idea that hope can be constructed, and constructive, seems at odds with what hopefulness so often feels like. With its flickering promise of a happier ending, hope provides a glimpse of relief in a desperate situation. It can, much later and in retrospect, leave us feeling cheated and let down. We speak of our hopes being “dashed” or “destroyed.” Sometimes we even lay the blame on our own shoulders, as if our foolishness, and not chance, caused the pain: “I should never have hoped” (see also: REGRET). In truth, hope is always a leap into the unknown. It’s there when expectations fade, when we have reached the end of all we can practically do, and are left quietly willing, perhaps praying, for the best to happen—but knowing, too, that the worst might instead. To feel hope is to acknowledge how little control we have. It makes us vulnerable and strengthens at the same time. What is peculiar, then, is the idea that hope can be marshaled and put to work. As Ehrenreich found, we can’t just conjure hope. Optimism may be a cognitive stance, a habit of mind we just might be able to train ourselves to fall into. But hope is an emotion, and our experience of it is not entirely in our hands.