Writing on the acquisition of personality traits, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified hope as the first stage of human psycho-social development, contingent on whether the infant has basic “trust” or “mistrust” in its caregiver. A favorable outcome is the development of the psycho-social “virtues” of inner contentment and optimism, and the potential to trust both oneself and others. In other words, this is the development of a sense of hope. For Erikson, the opposite of hope is a lack of trust.
During the first presidential debate on Dec. 3, all three candidates pledged to bring a renewed sense of hope to Taiwan. The public’s current lack of trust in organizations — from economic to judicial and cultural, from cross-strait relations to politics — needs to be addressed. Hope can only exist when this trust has been rebuilt.
However, it will take more than talk to do so. When people are low, hard facts are not going to lift their spirits. Neither is it sufficient to encourage sacrifice to ensure future success. Studies in positive psychology suggest that happiness is an important factor. Happy people tend to be more positive and optimistic, and these feelings go a long way to producing success, arming people with the wisdom and resolve to overcome the challenges before them.
Research also shows a positive correlation between how happy the president of a company is and how pleasant employees find the work environment, which therefore impacts the quality and quantity of their output. It is not good enough for our leaders, with their mutual mistrust and hostility, to promise hope on the horizon, but neglect to create the right conditions for it. Making such assurances is like putting a wonderful menu in front of a starving man too weak to survive until the food arrives. If you offer promises you cannot immediately fulfill, you will only rub salt into the wound.
There are two meanings of the word “hope” in psychology, depending on whether it is a noun or a verb. The former refers to a desirable future construct, with the passive individual consigned to uncertainty in the present. The latter refers to the ability of an individual to envisage a positive future. In this way, the individual is able to construct itself psychologically, morally and in relation to others, and therefore to plan ahead. Transforming the idea of hope from the noun form to the verb has a multiplier effect on happiness.
There has been much talk of the fact that many people cannot perceive the effects of economic recovery, and I think the public mood and people’s need to retreat from perceived threats can largely account for this. When people are faced with difficult situations, the way they experience what is happening in their lives is colored by their mood and they retreat to a place far divorced from one in which they will be able to hope.
Emotions are complex. It is easy to talk of sadness, happiness or regret in reference to some “moral economy” of hope, but these are just convenient generalizations. This is why it is so hard for the public to buy into the optimistic atmosphere President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is trying to conjure up with his slogan: “Things will get better soon with Ma.” The public knows this as political posturing, and mistrusts it.
Elevating hope as some higher ideal is a romantic indulgence that risks consigning marginalized members of society further into confusion, chaos and silence.