The crisis of hopelessness and the hope mindset

Fresno Bee, April 2, 2023

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. April is a month of hope. So let’s think carefully about this crisis of hopelessness.

Hope is essential for human agency. Creative, energetic people live in a space of imagination oriented toward future goods. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel linked hope to his idea of “man, the voyager.” Life is an adventure, driven by hope. Marcel says that hope is for the soul what breathing is for the body.

Hope sees life from a larger perspective that extends beyond the present. Hope is supported by communities that remind us of this larger sense of self. One practical solution is to look up and look around. The cramped and narrow world of small screens and instant gratification is destructive of hope. We are part of a larger process. We can each contribute in our own way to the development of that larger story.

It helps to know that hopefulness can be cultivated. Hopefulness is not merely an emotional state, beyond our control. Hopefulness is, rather, a virtue that controls our emotions. And we can learn to be hopeful.

It is possible to develop a “hopeful mindset” that is similar to “the growth mindset” popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck. Human beings are not born with fixed personalities, virtues and habits. Rather, we develop over time. And believing you can grow helps you grow.

A hopeful orientation motivates you to get actively involved in the adventure of life. The American philosopher William James gave practical advice in his short book, “Is Life Worth Living?” He said, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

James illustrated this idea with a story. Imagine that you are climbing a mountain and must jump across a chasm. If you believe you can make the leap, you’ll be more likely to succeed. The hopeless person will give a half-hearted and timid effort, and “roll into the abyss.” The hopeful person will leap with all their being. There are no guarantees, of course. But without hope, you are more likely to fail.

In response, some religious folks will object that something is missing if we only talk about human power and creative energy. Without hope as a “theological virtue,” religious people worry that hope will be weak, fickle, and selfish. Others will object to the idea that we can “bootstrap” our way into hopefulness. The critics of bootstrapping claim that hope is insufficient in the face of a world that involves oppression, violence, and other social ills.

These kinds of criticism link hope to a religious revival or to a political revolution. But if you expect a revival or a revolution, you will likely be disappointed. The pragmatic idea is more modest. We evolve incrementally. Revolutions and revivals are rare and unpredictable. But human beings are always growing at the edges. Seeing life as a process of growth, as a journey and adventure, can help support the growth of hopefulness.

A key part of this process is to train your “hope muscle.” A hope journal can clarify what you hope for, and what you have achieved. It also helps to see role models of hopefulness. The journey of hope starts small. But over time hope grows. The example of the mountain climber comes to mind again. It is unrealistic to hope that you can leap over Mount Everest tomorrow. But you can make smaller gains and test your bootstraps until you really learn how to fly.

Another practical suggestion is to develop other virtues associated with hope. These virtues include courage, persistence and resourcefulness. We might also add gratitude and compassion. Hopefulness grows from tenacious and courageous activity. It also emerges from a sense of self that is enlarged by love.

We are not born knowing how to hope. We learn to be hopeful with support and education. We can help the hopeless by reminding them that hopelessness is not a fixed anchor. We can develop hope. And we can orient ourselves toward a future that is, in part, our own creation.

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To live well, find the zest

If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get enthused!

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2023

Life is an adventure. Passivity breeds boredom. Enthusiasm is contagious. And activity is the zest of life.

A recent study of thousands of people found that zest is essential for health and well-being. The study defines zest as “vitality, vigor, and being energized and eager to engage in work and life.”

The word “zest” comes from cooking. It is the tartness of citrus. Like a lemon in winter, zest wakes us up and invigorates us. Zest also includes “love of life” or what the French call joie de vivre. Lovers of life see it as a continual opportunity for inspiration and delight.

This new study confirms a fairly obvious point. It’s not surprising that enthusiasm and vitality are connected. But how do we cultivate love of life? That’s a difficult question in a world hungry for drugs, potions and therapies. But zest doesn’t come in a can. Rather, it is found in action.

Passion is not external to activity. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that passion is a “powerful spring.” He also said, “nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.” But this makes it seem that first we set the spring, and then we get to work.

In reality, this happens the other way around. First, you get to work. And in action, you discover satisfaction. In another place Emerson said, “activity is contagious.” The point is to get going. If the work suits you and you stick with it, passion will grow.

And there are lots of ways to get energized. The psychologist William James saw “eagerness” as central to the meaning of life. James explained that eagerness “is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality.” James understood that many diverse activities can give us purpose. We can be eager to learn, to play music, to make love, or to serve others. What matters is staying active and engaged.

James’ colleague at Harvard, George Santayana, celebrated the creative energy of artists and poets, who are absorbed with the creative act. The artists of life say, “life is an adventure, not a discipline … and the exercise of energy is the absolute good.” He explains, “The zest of life becomes a cosmic emotion; we lump the whole together and cry, Hurrah for the Universe!”

That zesty attitude seems in short supply these days. The world is awash in anxiety, moodiness, fatigue, and apathy. Some of this may be traced to the lingering disruption of COVID. There is also the drumbeat of bad news about war, climate, corruption and crime. Our diets, lack of physical exercise, and other environmental factors are also to blame. Screens, sofas, and soft bellies are part of the problem of our low energy.

Certainly, chemical and hormonal imbalances need clinical treatment. But the bigger problem is our cultural malaise. The critics constantly complain. And everyone has a list of grievances. When have you recently heard anyone say “Hurrah for the Universe”? When has reality caused you to tingle?

It can help to hear stories about the enthusiasm and passion of others. It is inspiring to see other people get fired up. Such stories can come from entrepreneurs, athletes, social justice warriors, scientists or artists. But watching others act is ultimately boring. Spectating is no substitute for doing. It is the creative act that gives birth to passion.

Now, a critic might object that this is naïvely optimistic. Energy, she might add, can’t simply be willed into existence. But the American philosophers don’t teach us that energy is the result of wishful thinking. Rather, they tell us that enthusiasm is the result of action.

The American tradition views the world as an experiment. American thinkers see the human spirit as an adventurer. Nothing is fixed and there are infinite opportunities for action. We are free, intelligent, and imaginative beings. To be human is to use our creative energies. Passivity breeds apathy and discontent. Energy is created by action.

Enthusiasm is an attitude, an orientation and a habit. Like a muscle, it grows when we exercise it. And it is contagious. Enthusiastic people inspire us to be more enthusiastic. If you want to live a happy and healthy life, stop being a spectator. Get busy squeezing the lemons and making lemonade.

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Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Bad news bumming you out?
Turn off the TV, go out and make some good news

Fresno Bee, November 10 2017

Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.

Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.

An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.

One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.

There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.

Willam James

This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.

Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”

This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.

Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.

Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.

Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.

Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.

Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.

A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.

Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.

Marijuana Morality

Proposition 64: Discerning the pros and cons of legalized marijuana

Fresno Bee, October 28, 2016

There are difficult questions to confront in thinking about Proposition 64. If the polls are right, the pot proposition will likely pass. And if it passes, we will need to think carefully about the morality of marijuana.

Libertarians argue that adults should be free to get high. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, has long advocated marijuana reform.

Others oppose intoxication on principle. This view is often based in religion. Mormons, Mennonites and Muslims – as well as Buddhists and Baptists – generally oppose alcohol and other intoxicants. Religious folks tend to think that drug-induced rapture is a false idol leading to immoral behavior.

But some traditions do use drugs to achieve ecstasy and insight. An ancient proverb states “in vino veritas,” in wine there is truth. Uninhibited drunks may speak the truth and some find enlightenment in their cups.

William James, the great American philosopher, explained, “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the Yes function in man. … It makes him, for the moment, one with truth.”

James described the “ontological intuition” disclosed by various drugs. That’s fancy language for the sense of wonder and harmony that some drugs elicit. Marijuana often has been associated with spirituality and higher consciousness – by Rastafarians, Indian mystics, Sufis and hippies.


Puritanical types argue that chemical nirvana is cheap and phony. It is debatable whether any drug can put you in touch with God. But there is no denying that human beings pursue altered states of consciousness.

Sober thought and rational discernment are important goods – often in short supply. But man does not live by sobriety alone. We also need escapes and relaxations.

In our culture, alcohol is the drug of choice. A glass of wine at dinner is part of haute cuisine. Art and music often are enjoyed with wine or a cocktail. And beer goes with sports. Libertarians argue for expanding our choices.

But the freedom to alter consciousness runs up against our responsibility to others. Do we want stoned parents – or drunk parents, for that matter – raising children? Impaired driving is an important concern. Drunken drivers kill about 28 people per day. Marijuana legalization likely will increase traffic fatalities.

7ac6746876d20bac10c7ec9c5c7b510d664e5843e8d57a14e4a2f2751c0a1440The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws offers a different opinion. NORML suggests that stoned drivers are aware of their impairment and slow down, focusing more on driving. They claim that drunken drivers are more reckless than stoned drivers.

This is an unlikely story. And even if it is true, legal pot will cause traffic snarls as would-be Cheeches and Chongs creep along in the fast lane. There is no denying that stoned drivers will cause accidents.

A Libertarian will reply that despite drunken driving, alcohol remains legal. From this point of view, what is needed is regulation and education, not prohibition. Self-driving cars and better public transportation also would help.


If marijuana becomes legal in California, as is likely, it is still worth asking whether decent and responsible people should partake. We will need social norms to guide appropriate pot behavior – a guidebook of marijuana manners.

Our culture – our economy, our educational system and our democratic process – is based upon the presumption of sobriety and rationality. Intoxicated workers, teachers and voters are dangerous. If weed is legalized, decent people should only use it in moderation and at appropriate times.

We have a system of social norms governing alcohol. The cocktail hour begins only after work. Responsible drinkers drink moderately, imbibing one or two drinks a day – and not every day. They recognize that alcoholism is a risk. And they understand that drunken driving is wrong.

We do not have a similar system of social norms governing pot use. Stoner culture is often excessive and irresponsible. Snoop Dogg is not a role model.

If pot is legalized, we will need moral guidance on basic questions of where, when and how much. Moderate marijuana use has not been addressed in the mainstream. If Propositon 64 passes, we will need someone other than Cheech, Chong or Snoop to give us advice.

This is probably a lot for a stoned voter to keep in mind. And that may be a reason for further skepticism about whether legalizing pot is good for our democracy.

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Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

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