As the world continues to grapple with remedies to urgent global problems – from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change – it’s easy to feel a sense of déjà vu, even despair. What can be done to tackle humanity’s seemingly endless crises? And even if we know what to do, finding the common ground across our divides – that is essential for cooperation – can seem daunting.
Though being hopeful seems an increasingly impossible stance, nevertheless even today we see powerful scientific and spiritual reasons to hope. Hope is as essential to humans as oxygen. It is a crucial survival trait that has sustained our species in the face of danger since the Stone Age. Hope is powerful.
But what is hope really? Is it just a feeling? Where does it come from? Can it be measured? Can we develop it? Instill it? Real hope is not a passive feeling: It’s a positive force that motivates action. Hope and action mutually reinforce each other – you won’t be active unless you hope your action will make a difference. You need hope to get you going, but then by taking action it helps you generate more hope. It’s a feedback loop.
Our experience – one as an ethologist and conservationist, the other as the head of one of America’s largest private philanthropies supporting science – tells us that there are powerful reasons to remain hopeful despite the severity of our crises.
Here are three: the resilience of humanity, the resilience of life and the empowerment of young people.
The largest psychological study ever conducted in rural Appalachia, funded by the Templeton Foundation, reached a startling conclusion about human resilience. Despite disturbingly high rates of poverty, 77% of participants reported that “I am satisfied with my life.” In response to traumatic events, 84% reported, “I discovered that I am stronger than I thought I was.”
A study of child soldiers and other youth from Sierra Leone with extremely high trauma exposure found that six years post-war, a large majority of youth (89%) exhibited either low internalized symptoms or a recovery improving over time, even with very limited access to counseling.
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In addition to such examples, humans belong to a continuum of life that is able to survive even in the most threatening conditions.
We are part of a web of life that stretches over 3 billion years, that has bounced back from massive plate tectonic shifts, ice ages, sea level changes, atmospheric fluctuations, volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts. In recent history, not only has industrialization taken a huge toll on wildlife, but modern warfare obliterates huge tracts of land in the blink of an eye. Still, hope persists.
The demilitarized zone (DMZ), a 155 mile long, 2 mile wide strip of land created as a buffer between North and South Korea in 1953, suffered massive bombing campaigns and is still scarred by more than 1 million land mines. Nevertheless, in the decades that have followed, left undisturbed by humans, nature has rapidly healed itself. Thousands of plant and animal species and dozens of endangered species are found there. It is an oasis for migratory birds and a marvelous example of regeneration.
And if it is possible for a tree that was once crushed beneath the rubble from the Twin Towers, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, to recover and blossom again, then we can hope for the resilience of life on Earth.
Empowering young people
By investing in young people and empowering them to take the action they want in the world, we get transformative results in their moral and civic character. Youth development programs can not only strengthen the individuals who participate, they can also equip them with the tools to make a measurable, long-term difference in the world. The Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots movement, now celebrating its 30th anniversary and active in more than 50 countries, is based upon these principles.
These are three good reasons why we are hopeful that we can emerge stronger from our current situation. Real hope does not exclude fear, anger or frustration – it harnesses them. Hope does not deny all the difficulty and all the danger that exist but strengthens our determination to overcome them.
All this is different from optimism, an attitude that is largely rooted in our genetic disposition.
When 2013 Templeton Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked why he was optimistic, he said he was not optimistic but was a prisoner of hope. “Hope,” he said, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
In a time when the future is shadowed by coronavirus, conflict, climate change and loss of biodiversity, hope gives us the strength to move forward.
Heather Templeton-Dill is president of the John Templeton Foundation, a major funder of research on hope, optimism, resilience and character development.