December 22, 2020 • Third Third Journal
I read a fascinating and surprising article recently: “Hope for the Next Year and Beyond.” It appeared on the Psychology Today blog and was written by Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. A scholar of distinction, VanderWeele is also the Director of Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program. In that role, he regularly writes articles that are academically informed, pleasantly readable, and strikingly relevant. “Hope for the Next Year and Beyond” is all of these things and more. (If you’d like to keep up with VanderWeele’s articles, you can subscribe to the Human Flourishing Program’s mailing list at this link.)
VanderWeele begins by wondering if, during a deadly pandemic, we have reason for hope. Hope, he explains, is not the same as optimism. Drawing from the work of philosopher Michael Milona, VanderWeele explains, “Hope differs from optimism in not necessarily presuming or expecting that the future will be good, but focusing on the possibility that it will be good nonetheless. Hope entails a desire for something good in the future, and a belief that this is possible.” Moreover, following Thomas Aquinas, VanderWeele writes that hope “arises out of the perception that this future good is difficult, but not impossible, to obtain.”
Though hope seems to be something desirable, VanderWeele follows Milona in recognizing several dangers that might follow from hope, including “complacency, or an unrealistic set of expectations, or an otherworldliness that may not be conducive to appropriate action.” VanderWeele wonders “whether hope really contributes to human well-being.” This is something worth investigating, and it has been the focus of research at Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program.
Research on the Impact of Hope
As I read VanderWeele’s piece, I was following his argument eagerly. Yes, I also wondered if hope could be seen, from an empirical point of view, to enrich human life. But what came next both surprised and delighted me. Surprise #1 was learning that VanderWeele and his colleagues recently finished a research project focusing on hope in the third third of life, or in his language, a study of “the effects of hope on health and well-being . . . [using] data from about 13,000 older adult participants in the Health and Retirement Study.” Surprise #2 came when I clicked on the link for the paper that reported on the study. “The role of Hope in subsequent health and well-being for older adults: An outcome-wide longitudinal approach” was written by several scholars, including the lead researcher, Katelyn N.G. Long. Long, in addition to being a postdoctoral fellow at the Human Flourishing Program, is also a sister-in-law to my De Pree Center colleague, Michaela O’Donnell Long.
The research done by Long and her colleagues “examined the relation between baseline hope and a wide range of outcomes that included indicators of: physical health, health behaviors, and psychosocial well-being in older adults using an outcome-wide approach” (1). According to VanderWeele’s summary, they found that “having high levels of hope led to slightly decreased (16% lower) mortality risk during the 4 years of follow-up, as well as fewer subsequent chronic health conditions; it also led to lower levels of depression, negative affect, and loneliness; notably higher life satisfaction, happiness, purpose in life, and sense of mastery; and perhaps somewhat greater physical activity.” To put it simply and non-technically, those who had high levels of hope were physically and psychologically healthier than those who did not.
Can We Have Hope Today?
Now, there’s a good reason for those of us in the third third of life to have hope. Being hopeful will help us to flourish in a variety of ways. That sounds just great. But it leads to a pressing question. As VanderWeele puts it, “Can we truly hope today? As COVID case-rates soar and much of our social fabric seems to be fraying, despair might seem the most reasonable response.” Remember, hope is not illusionary optimism. It takes seriously the possibility of good without denying reality and the challenges we face in seeking to attain that good.
So, as we begin a new year, can we have hope today? And if so, on what basis?
When it comes to COVID-19, we have reason for hope, given the vaccines that have the potential for eventually bringing the pandemic to its knees. But what about all the other challenges and threats we face? How can we have hope in a world that feels as if it’s spinning out of control? And how can we have hope when we anticipate the losses that are common for older adults? Even if we feel great today, we know that won’t last forever.
Christian Hope Today
Christians have an answer to the “How can we have hope?” question. We believe that hope is possible in today’s world, no matter what is going on around us. Why? Because our hope is not tied to this world, but rather to God and God’s actions. As Michaela Milona writes in Hope and Optimism, “Christian theologians see a hope in God as fundamental. Hoping in God is a way of trusting or relying on God” (29). Through faith, we have confident hope that God is at work in us and in our world. Things may not turn out as we hope, but God can be trusted to do what’s best. Ultimately, God will restore all things in the fulness of time, defeating injustice and violence, establishing pervasive, prosperous peace throughout the world (see Isa 9:6-7; Rev 21:1-5). As Christians, this is our ultimate, faith-inspired, confident hope.
Because our hope is grounded in God, we do not lose hope when things do not go as we wish. Because our hope is based on God, we do not despair when human efforts and human leaders fail us. Our transcendent hope might at first seem to draw us away from this world and its needs. Yet, in fact, Christian hope, when rightly understood, does the opposite. It empowers us to give our lives to God’s kingdom today, even as we hope for the fulness of that kingdom yet to come. Following Jesus, we pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 1 Corinthians 15, one of the most future-oriented, hope-filled chapters in the whole Bible, ends on this note, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58). Our labor is not in vain because we have faith-formed hope in God and God’s ability to use our efforts for his sovereign purposes.
Tyler VanderWeele concludes “Hope for the Next Year and Beyond” in this way: “During this upcoming holiday and Christmas season, those within the Christian tradition also remember a deeper and more longstanding hope, a hope mysteriously grounded in the birth of Jesus Christ, and all that followed from his life. It is a hope for a more final and powerful restoration to the good. Properly understood, it is not a hope that deters one from acting here and now, but one that gives reasons for such action – so as to bring about a better world. It is a hope that is made manifest, with its end ultimately attained, in love – a love of neighbor and love of God – a love that we are to show one another.” Thus, we hold onto hope and act in hope, not merely because it helps us to flourish in the third third of life, though this finding surely encourages us to be hopeful. Rather, we live as people of hope because of who God is and what God has done – and will do – through Jesus Christ.
Christian hope inspires us to act in love for others, even as God has acted in love for us through his Son. Christian hope gives us resilient love that withstands the inevitable disappointments of this world. Christian hope is based on God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. As it says in Romans 5:5, “[H]ope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.