Hope – We think of it fondly, considering it a positive emotion, and often it is. Look, for example, at the frenzy that surrounds a large Powerball jackpot, when millions of people who don’t normally play suddenly decide to buy a ticket for a chance to win $500 million or more.
The odds of winning don’t change: only the amount awarded to the winner. So even though the chance of taking home the big prize remains constant (at around 1 in 292 million), our minds make a determination that we now ought to play because the increased payoff is worth the risk.
We buy a ticket or two and then we dream of a new house or a round-the-world vacation, new cars and boats and parties for friends and families. We dream of retirement and fancy clothes and spur-of-the-moment decisions to fly to Hawaii or Tahiti. It’s fun, at least for most of us, because we haven’t invested too much into those dreams – a few dollars at most.
But there is a darker side to hope. Consider the compulsive gambler or the delusional player who somehow becomes convinced that he is going to win and raids his retirement account to buy 5,000 tickets. The odds for him now become 5,000 in 292 million – still pretty damn slim.
We see this in other aspects of life as well. We hope for a better future all the time. Sometimes that hope is justified (not necessarily because the future is going to get better, but because it’s reasonable to believe it will). And sometimes that hope is unrealistic. A short 60-year-old man should not have hope that he can become an Olympic volleyball player.
If he does, we say that he’s suffering from a delusion. But where does hope end and delusion begin? There’s the problem. Many things that seemed impossible have come to pass – like the 72-year-old woman in India who gave birth to her first child after receiving IVF treatments (and donor eggs, most likely).
It clearly wasn’t wrong for her to hope for that result despite her inability to have children at a younger age because she ultimately succeeded. So we look at something like that and say it’s never too late to hope. It’s never time to give up.
And yet, sometimes we should. Sometimes giving up hope is the best thing we can do for ourselves. I’m not saying we should do it quickly or before the realistic opportunity for success becomes delusional, but we have to know when hope is harming us, when continuing to pursue a goal that the rest of the world sees as silly is in fact silly.
For example, I used to get extremely frustrated at my golf game. I played a fair amount and thought I should be better than I was. I screamed and cursed and threw my clubs over my inability to execute a shot I knew I ought to be able to hit. The game began to eat away at me, making me unhappy.
I knew I had to either quit playing or change my attitude completely and stop caring about my score and my more-than-occasional bad shots. I decided that I liked playing golf with certain friends and family members and that I would rather do that badly than not do it at all. I changed. I gave up hope.
And the result?
I actually became a better golfer. No, I’ll never win any awards for my golf, but my game improved because I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect. I instead just enjoyed the game and being outside. I played for years afterwards with much more enjoyment as a result of giving up hope. I still play occasionally.
My point is that hope can be both good and bad, and only you can determine whether hope is justified in any specific situation. But you can’t rely exclusively on hope. You also have to consider the odds, do a cost-benefit analysis, or contemplate alternative scenarios to determine how much longer you should hold onto that feeling.
I’m not saying that one should ever give up all hope – just be prepared to give up hope about certain things. It’s okay to still be hopeful of being happy, for example. It’s okay to still hope to be loved until your dying day. But some hopes, some dreams, one must discard before they harm us.
Because when hope dies, it can be an ugly thing if you’re not prepared for it.
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