activism,  history,  politics,  the ethical life

Optimism vs Hope

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I’m thinking about the difference between optimism and hope. One can be optimistic because one believes things will go well. In some cases optimism is good and natural. However optimism can also be due to a lack of information about the potential problems or because one deliberately rejects the facts that disagrees with one. Therefore optimism itself is not a virtue. We should not be trying to “choose optimism” when the situation does not warrant it.

I picture NASA scientists preparing for a rocket launch. We want them to be optimistic because all the tests, models and simulations suggest they will be successful. We would not want them to “choose optimism” over pessimism if they had reason to believe there might be a problem in the launch.

To me hope is something different. Hope is what we do instead of despair, regardless of how many warning signs there are that things might be going badly. We can hope for good, even when surrounded by darkness. We can hope for good, even when the odds are against us. We can hope. Hope does not require brushing aside the facts that suggest something will go wrong. Hope acknowledges the pain and the risk of failure, but it does not let despair and darkness get the last word.

Optimism can deny the need to make corrections, to work for change, to be cautious. Hope says never give up. Keep going.

A friend said that “Optimism needs to spin failure into growth.” I agree. Trying to be positive all the time prevents a person from being able to recognize and accept mistakes, and learn from them. Be hopeful, acknowledge defeat and failure, and do not fall into despair.


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