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Why Hope Matters to Life Outcomes

America has a crisis of despair and its solution hinges on restoring hope.

Key points

  • Hope is critical to better life outcomes because of its agentic properties.
  • Those who lack hope and are in despair in the U.S. are experiencing a crisis of preventable premature deaths.
  • High levels of despair also leads to increased vulnerability to misinformation and radicalization.

The U.S. is experiencing a crisis of despair. Mental health problems are on the rise and deaths from causes such as suicide and drug overdose (deaths of despair) are at unprecedented levels, with almost 1 million U.S. deaths from overdoses in 2021 alone. Despair is not only linked with premature mortality, but to the vulnerability to misinformation that is plaguing our society, our health systems, and our democracy. Individuals in despair—defined as having no hope and being ambivalent about life versus death—are prone to believe fake news and related conspiracy theories and radicalization.

With an ongoing public health pandemic, a government that is stymied by extremist politics and zero-sum negotiations, a major war threatening world peace, and a labor market that is uncertain and changing rapidly, it can be difficult to see a path forward, especially for young people beginning their journey into adult life and work. Many of them are skeptical of higher education and have low aspirations for prospects for upward mobility.

Sadly, the young are also newly represented in the deaths of despair in the past few years. A recent CDC study documented a large rise in sadness and vulnerability to suicide among young girls, with 57% reporting sadness in the previous two weeks, a four-fold increase since 2011. Our research at Brookings, as well as that of many others, has found a steady increase in depression and anxiety among the young, also beginning in 2011. Suicides increased significantly among younger minorities in 2021, meanwhile, after a two-year decline, while they continued to decline (from higher rates) among whites and older people.

Psychiatrists often note that restoring hope is a first step to recovering from mental illness, but there is no guidepost for doing so. Hope, while in the title of many books and in countless poems and conversations, is an understudied and understood concept in the social sciences. In my new book, The Power of Hope: How the Science of Well-being Can Save us from Despair (Princeton University Press, 2023), I explore what we know and do not know about hope and how it can be used to help solve this crisis.

Hope, like IQ, has genetic properties but is also influenced by the environment that people live in. Like many personality traits, hope is malleable much later in life than is IQ, which does not change much after the 20s, providing us with opportunities to increase it but not with lessons for doing so. There are, however, some examples from wellbeing science that can serve as a starting point.

Hope also has racial and cultural determinants and can be influenced by the community in which people live. In surveys of low-income adolescents in Lima, Peru and St. Louis, Missouri, I found the same differences in hope that we see across cultures and races more generally. The least optimistic adolescents are low-income whites, who have no aspirations for education beyond high school. In contrast, even though more materially deprived, low-income Black adolescents are much more likely to trust others and to aspire to some form of higher education. In addition, they tend to have a mentor or family member who supports those aspirations, in contrast to the white youth. The Peruvian adolescents, like the minorities in Missouri, have very high education aspirations and report support from their families or communities.

In the U.S., if these trends remain unaddressed, we are likely to have a next generation in despair. Young adults entering the labor market face new and unknown challenges. While college education is expensive and not always the solution, the labor force of the future will increasingly require socio-emotional and cognitive skills that are not usually acquired in high school. New forms of education must be part of the solution, as is facilitating the ability of more young adults to attend college. Community colleges, for example, tend to be a good start and at the same time are an important factor as declining communities try to build back and attract new forms of economic activity.

Communities in general can also play a critical role in the process of reducing despair and restoring hope. Increasingly, community members are playing a role in identifying the vulnerable and assisting in getting them to seek out mental health and other forms of treatment. This is particularly critical in areas which are underserved in terms of health care and mental health care, due to their remote nature (as in rural areas) or to deprived conditions (in urban and rural areas). There are experiences about community wellbeing we can learn from, such as from the U.K.’s What Works Wellbeing Centre and the Virtual Hands Collaborative in the U.S., among others.

Equally critical, though, is supporting the hopes and aspirations of the next generations so that they pursue opportunities when they are available. Hope, unlike raw optimism, has agentic qualities, making it a critical trait as individuals make decisions about their futures. Economists and other social scientists have only begun to recognize the importance of feelings in decision-making, but there is abundant evidence in practical experience. While we do not know much about restoring hope, it will be key to the success of the next generation—as are mentors that can support their hopes and aspirations. Our research finds that having a mentor who supports the hopes and aspirations of the young is a critical factor in their decisions to invest in their futures, such as in education, and to avoid risky behaviors that jeopardize those futures, like using drugs. Communities can also play a role in steering youth to new forms of education and to community colleges, for example.

These uncertain times dictate the urgency of increasing our knowledge and putting what we do know into practice. Given the damage that despair has already caused, including the lives of almost 1 million Americans in 2021 alone, its spread to the next generation is a daunting thought.

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