Hope for the hopeless

Hope for the hopeless

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SALT LAKE CITY -- We are not born without hope. Hopelessness is learned. It is also a choice.

In his book, "Man’s Search for Meaning," concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl noted that when fellow prisoners lost hope, they were dead within two weeks. The Nazis certainly cultivated an environment of hopelessness, but Frankl noted that hope was not something the Nazis could take from a prisoner; It had to be surrendered by its owner. The point of Frankl’s gripping story is that we always, always, always have a choice. We can always choose to be optimistic, despite the circumstances.

Optimists live longer, are liked more, make more money, are more happily married and are more likely to get the job and advance in their career more swiftly than their pessimistic counterparts. As you might imagine, optimists tend to be happier, while pessimists lean toward depression.

In her book, "The How of Happiness," Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky pointed out that depressed people are not concerned that something bad will happen in their future. They are depressed because they forecast that nothing good will happen. Pessimism continues to cultivate their depression.

Start by being mindful. Become aware of your explanatory style. Catch yourself making negative statements and ask yourself, “Is that really true?”

People are born optimistic and learn to be pessimistic. There is a spectrum of optimism ranging from Pollyanna to Eeyore, with many shades of gray in between. These shades are determined by one’s explanatory style.

When things go right or wrong, how do you explain it? In his book, "Learned Optimism," Dr. Martin Seligman dissected optimism and pessimism and found three distinct components: permanence, pervasiveness and whether one blames themselves or external forces.

Here's an example: If I have unsuccessfully tried to sell my car for the past three months, and I say it's because “I can’t do anything right,” would this statement be true? Of course not. However, if this thought goes unchecked, I will experience feelings of hopelessness. When I used statements like these, it's insinuated that I cannot ever do anything right, so there is a tone of permanence: that I could not do anything right yesterday, cannot do anything right today and will not be able to do anything right tomorrow. In these situations, I can ask myself, “Is it really true that I can never do anything right?” Even in a bad mood, it is easy to see that this statement is simply not true.


On the issue of pervasiveness, I made a very broad statement after experiencing frustration about a specific situation (difficulty selling the car). When I said, "I can’t do anything right," I indicated that not only can I not sell my car, I cannot do anything right at work, at home, with friends, at play, etc. In other words, my bungling runs through and through, no matter what arena I may enter. How depressing. How false! Stopping to ask myself what things I do right in other areas of my life reminds me that while I might be having a difficult time in this particular situation, it does not mean I am entirely inept.

Finally, am I blaming myself or forces outside of myself? In the example, the optimist explains her difficulty in selling the car by saying, “It’s not a buyer’s market.” This takes self-blame out of the equation entirely. She is not using the words “I” or “me” in her explanation. Checking this statement for pervasiveness and permanence, it is easy to discern that there is hope because it is insinuated that the poor market for buying cars will pass, and because she used language for the specific situation, she is not proclaiming doom for all of her selling endeavors.

A word of caution about blaming outside forces: While optimists might not blame themselves for bad things that happen (or do not happen), this should be used cautiously. Attributing all happenings to outside forces can have a nasty backlash. If one blames “fate,” “luck” or other cosmic forces, it can result in giving oneself a pass rather than taking full responsibility for one’s actions. In Happiness 101, I teach empowerment with fervor. If you want to be happy, you absolutely must take full responsibility for that happiness.

Hopelessness breeds depression. Hope cultivates happiness. Which will you choose?

This has been a crash course in the mechanics of optimism and pessimism. As I wrote in The Eight Steps to Happiness, you must start by being mindful. Become aware of your explanatory style. Catch yourself making negative statements and ask yourself, “Is that really true?” It is very likely you will realize that your pessimistic statement is not true at all and will find yourself feeling more hopeful.

Hopelessness is a serious issue in our state. Utah ranks in the top 10 for suicide in the nation and is the fourth largest consumer of antidepressants in the country. This is why I have been teaching Happiness 101 to the public free of charge for the past two-and-a-half years. It is the reason I am teaching a six-week webinar in October — so people in the at-risk, rural areas of Utah may learn about optimism and other aspects of positive psychology. I want to restore hope to people who are depressed or suicidal and spread happiness.

Hopelessness breeds depression. Hope cultivates happiness. Which will you choose?

Frank Clayton is a licensed professional counselor specializing in happiness. He will teach Happiness 101 free of charge via the Internet in October 2011.

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