Existential Psychology

Dashed Hopes

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There are some formidable psychological barriers to staying upbeat and positive when things don’t go as planned and our high hopes are dashed. Probably the biggest one is that once we have taken an action, our expectations tend to align with that action, making our hopes high that the outcome will be positive even when the odds are against us. If you have ever bought a lottery ticket you know the feeling. The odds are astronomically stacked against you, something you know in theory, but once you buy that ticket you believe it’s the winner and have the audacity to be disappointed when it’s not. Studies following gamblers at race tracks have shown the same thing, where before purchasing a ticket they were uncertain and nervous about the result, whereas directly afterwards they were quite sure they picked the winning horse. This psychological principle, called consistency, is not unique to gamblers and affects the way all of us structure our lives. In common language we might use the expression ‘wearing rose colored glasses’.

When our hopes come true we consider the outcome to have been par for the course, and when they don’t we are devastated, even when our chances weren’t that good. Our strange existential relationship to expectations explains why losses tend to stick with us longer while the glory of winning quickly fades.

Other than readjusting expectations to better align with reality, one way to insulate ourselves from our own psyches is to take a page out of the investment professional’s playbook and diversify our hope portfolios. You protect yourself from downside and risk when you invest in a broad range of stocks because you are not tied to any one sector or company. When one invariably fails the others are there to cover your losses. In the context of hope, don’t put yourself in a position where you rise or fall based on one small area of your life. Invest your hope in many areas, pursue a wider range of endeavors, and you won’t feel as bad when failure strikes because from a global perspective you’ll still be doing pretty well.

Only you can know where that line is that once crossed means you’ve spread yourself too thin, but investing all your time and energy in one slim area, while high on reward, is also high on risk. Hope is a core component of self-actualization because we go from what is known and certain towards what is unknown and uncertain when we make the choice to grow. If we decide to grow in many different aspects of our lives we increase our ability to stay upbeat and positive about the overall journey when we hit a speed bump along the way.