09/05/2011 10:39 am ET | Updated Nov 05, 2011

Would You Rather Live in Hope or Die in Despair?

Would you rather live in hope or die in despair? Now that's an intriguing question that came up at dinner Saturday evening with Stuart, my friend and physician. In these difficult times, many people have abandoned hope and settled for despair, and for apparently good reasons. However, hope and despair share one thing in common: Both can be the result of choices you make about what's happening around you and to you.

Too many people deny the possibilities of an optimistic view, rejecting the notion of taking a positive approach to life as "looking at life through rose-colored glasses." In this regard, Stuart told me of having met a fellow from New Zealand who framed his approach to life this way: "If you live in hope, you will never die in despair." Of course, the missing element to this clever phrase is the practical application part, about getting down in the trenches and doing the work necessary to turn hope into some kind of positive, forward motion.

None of the self-improvement ideas you will find on these Healthy Living pages (including mine) are worth the cyberspace upon which they surf, absent a healthy dose of practical application. As Will Rogers, the cowboy philosopher once said, "A vision without a plan is just a hallucination."

If you are one of the many struggling in the current economic and social climate, hope may seem somewhere between the only thing you have left and just another hallucination. In these times of stress, we hear from those who would encourage us to take a positive view while others regale us with the hopelessness of the situation. So which is it? Is it time for hope or despair?

A recent article by Dr. Art Markman entitled Is There Ever Such A Thing As Too Much Optimism? points to one of the biggest challenges facing those who would prefer an optimistic approach to life. Dr. Markham references a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggesting that there are differences between how people respond to controllable and uncontrollable negative experiences. Apparently, the authors arrive at an interesting if conflicted conclusion: Optimism over uncontrollable negative events is more useful than optimism over controllable negative events. Dr. Markman writes:

The authors of the paper first review evidence on uncontrollable events, and suggest that there is good reason to think that having a positive attitude toward uncontrollable events in the past is a good thing. Classic research by Shelley Taylor, for example, suggests that a patient with breast cancer will adjust better and suffer fewer symptoms of depression by being optimistic rather than by being pessimistic about her disease ...

People who thought positively about (controllable) severe negative events, though, actually showed an increase in symptoms of depression over time. The reason for this increase is that these negative events were controllable. By minimizing the importance of a (negative event), people opened themselves up to experience more of it in the future ... You cannot find ways to eliminate the negative in life if you always accentuate the positive.

So what's at play here? The hopeful breast cancer patient who takes an optimistic view is more likely to take positive action in regard to her recovery. Similarly, the adult embroiled in a difficult, even abusive relationship needs to recognize the situation for what it is, focus on a positive outcome, and take the steps that can lead to an improved relationship. Even if you are being slammed by this economy, you still need to take whatever steps you can to improve your situation. Of course, not all hopeful or optimistic attitudes lead to successful outcomes; however, absent of the hopeful or optimistic attitude, how likely is that you will take the steps necessary to pursue a positive outcome?

One of the main ingredients in differentiating successful vs. despairing outcomes lies in the practical application principle I mentioned earlier. In this regard, beyond the level of impact, there is no real difference between a controllable or uncontrollable negative situation, at least not in terms of how you respond to what has occurred. In either situation, you need to face the situation with a healthy dose of reality, and then make the best choices you can in light of what is present.

Dr. Markman reveals one of the troubling aspects that many suffer from in trying to adopt a more optimistic or positive approach to life. In his reply to a comment on his article, Dr. Markham notes that, "The title I submitted asked whether it is always good to look at the world through rose-colored glasses."

Not knowing Dr. Markman or his underlying philosophy, my apologies if I am misconstruing his words or intent here -- I know full well how difficult it is to explore the depths of an important principle such as this in a blog post. The rose-colored glasses metaphor is so often bandied about that the potential of an optimistic or positive focus becomes diluted, if not completely pushed aside by this kind of phrase. An optimistic or positive focus requires positive action in order to have any real meaning or potential; it is also difficult to take meaningful positive action if you don't begin with an accurate assessment of the current situation. Rose-colored glasses rarely enable a realistic view.

The breast cancer survivor is not one who pretends that cancer is a rosy thing. She first needs to recognize and accept the fact that cancer is upon her; from there, she can begin to take the steps necessary to allow for a possible recovery. If, instead, she submits to the negativity and despair of the "Big C," she is unlikely to do what is necessary to create the possibility of coming out okay on the other side.

What issues are you facing in life -- ranging from health to difficult relationships to having lost your job, your home or your savings? How would you assess yourself in terms of your approach to life? Do you prefer the hopeful, optimistic view? If so, what choices have you made that have enabled you to overcome negative situations? If you have been more in despair than hope, what positive steps could you take if you were to imagine a more optimistic or hopeful outcome -- not a giant leap to perfection, just a small step or two that would help you move forward?

I'd love to hear from you so please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)

If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your own life, how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your own life, please download a free chapter from my new book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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