Hope, Optimism, and Shawshank

In an interview with a philosopher about hope and optimism, who would think that horror writer Stephen King would come up—not just once, but twice.

Andrew Chignell, a professor of philosophy at University of Pennsylvania, is co-director of the Hope and Optimism Initiative. His research is focused on Kant and modern philosophy, the ethics of belief, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, and food ethics.

ORBITER recently chatted with Chignell about hope and optimism, pessimism, advice for looking ahead to a new year. And Stephen King came up. Twice. Once for The Shining, and then for The Shawshank Redemption, which philosophers often invoke as a prime example of hope. (For example, see Ariel Meirav’s “The Nature of Hope” and Chignell’s video at the bottom of this article.)

ORBITER: Give me your 2-minute elevator pitch: What is the Hope & Optimism project?

Andrew Chignell: The name almost says it all: “Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations.” Our researchers are trying to figure out what hope is, what its opposite is (is it fear? despair? apathy?), what its genetic or neurological bases are, how it is caused, how it manifests, what kinds of benefits and risks it brings, and how to increase it or scale it back. Same for the different kinds of optimism.

Any particularly memorable aspects of taking part in this project?

Yes. We sponsored some artistic efforts and public outreach events. I’m a theater buff and my co-director Sam (Samuel Newlands) likes film, so we ran nationwide playwriting and short-filmmaking contests in an effort to find artistic representations of hope and the role it plays in human life.

The play contest along got over 800 submissions; I had to hire 10 theater professionals to help me make the final judgments! The icing on the cake was the chance to showcase our results during “Hope Festivals” in both Ithaca, New York, and in Los Angeles. In LA, some of our researchers gave short lectures about their work, and we had some longer “TED”-style talks by famous people who thought a lot about hope and despair (Cornel West, Tali Sharot, T.C. Boyle), watched the prize-winning films, and ran a full production of the world premiere of the prizewinning play (“I Carry Your Heart,” by an up and coming Chicago playwright named Georgette Kelly).

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in this research?

Our genetics research team, led by Jari Lahti in Finland, made genuine advances in its efforts to discern genomic and epigenomic bases (or correlates at least) for a certain kind of dispositional optimism.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned?

I was honestly surprised at how much mileage we got out of the cross-disciplinary interactions, especially between the humanities and the social sciences on the topic of hope. Sometimes interdisciplinarity is a total fiasco, or a pretense. But this time it seemed to click.

I remember some eureka moments at our weeklong workshop together in Estes Park, Colorado. (We met at The Stanley Hotel, famous for inspiring Stephen King’s The Shining”–lots of fear and despair in that one, and they even have a dedicated TV channel in every room running the movie on endless loop!) ! The humanities folks would be like, “Wow, I didn’t realize you could come up with an empirical measure for that kind of thing instead of just philosophizing from the armchair!” And the psychologists and sociologists, on the other hand, seemed to appreciate our ability to make some conceptual distinctions and provide historical context as they tried to figure out what it would be to develop empirical tests and measures for hope.

Speaking of Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption is a great example of hope personified.

Yes. You have two characters, Andy and Red. Both of them really desire something: to get out of prison. Both of them regard it as possible, but somehow one character, Andy, says he’s hopeful and that he’s acting in such a way as to make it come about, even if he thinks it’s extremely unlikely. And the other character, Red, says he can’t allow himself to hope. The fear of disappointment is too great and will crush him. One hopes and the other despairs.

Cases like this make people think we need some other kind of condition to really explain the difference between hope and despair. And that’s where some of the debate is at the moment, trying to find this elusive third condition. [Hear more of Chignell’s observations on Shawshank, hope, and despair in the short video at the end of this article.]

Is it possible to be 100% optimistic (or 100% pessimistic), or are all of us essentially a blend of both?

I realize this is the answer you’d expect from a philosophy professor, but . . . it depends! It depends, for instance, on what you mean by “optimistic” or “pessimistic.” Psychologists have developed measures for at least 16 different kinds of optimism (including these 8).

But the easy answer here is “No, it’s impossible to be 100% of either.” Our research and that of many others suggests that an “optimism bias” (Tali Sharot’s term; her TED Talk) is hardwired into us via natural selection. We’re basically here because our ancestors overestimated their chances and their abilities, and thus took risks that proved to be adaptive. But there are downsides to being too optimistic or too hopeful—we tend to ignore risks and overestimate our chances in a way that makes us vulnerable. Not everyone can be an above average driver, but almost everyone thinks they are!

Pessimism can offer a useful “reality check” in the face of all the Pollyannaish optimism in our culture. But I don’t think that a 100% pessimistic person would be able to get out of bed very often. Even Schopenhauer, who claimed that this is the “’worst of all possible worlds,” managed to find some solace in the beauty of art and nature. That said, there is a modern-day Schopenhauer, a philosopher named David Benatar, who is so down about our species-level prospects that he thinks it is downright immoral for us to have children.

What advice would you give a person looking ahead to 2018, hoping for a fresh start, and yet being realistic . . . especially after a discouraging year for many Americans?

I’m not sure what to say about optimism in our present circumstances. Optimism involves expectation—the belief that things are at least likely to get better. Hope, on the other hand, involves merely believing that better outcomes are possible, plus (in my view) being disposed to have a certain kind of “focus” on that positive possibility.

This kind of hope-constituting focus is something I think we can cultivate in many instances. It may not be under the direct control of the will, but still: mindful, regular efforts to practice focusing on the chance that things will improve can lead to a stable disposition of hopefulness. And this can lead to positive behaviors in lots of contexts, as long as you don’t overdo it and start completely ignoring grim statistics or ominous trends.

The fact that we have some indirect control over this kind of mindful focus is (in my view) part of why hopefulness counts as a virtue rather than a mere passing state or hardwired trait.

Watch Dr. Chignell describe the meaning of hope, illustrating it via The Shawshank Redemption:

(Shawshank Redemption photo credit: Columbia Pictures)