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The Shrink

Happiness is having something to do, someone to love and something to hope for, says the Chinese proverb. Losing all hope is a bleak place to be, and we don’t want to go anywhere near it if we can help it.

It might seem that hope is not one of those things that is sensitive to quantity – we can never have too much of it. We can all think of people who are too assertive, for instance, or have too much self-esteem. But with hope, we might imagine, the more the better.

In fact, a bit like optimism and pessimism, hope is a delicate balance to get right. Why not the more the better? Surely the more we hope that we’ll succeed, the more we’re actually likely to get what we want? In job interviews, for instance, or dating, a hopeful and positive attitude may manifest itself as confidence and subtly influence the outcome. The downside is that too much hope risks inviting self-deception and interfering with our ability to assess and deal wisely with reality.

According to psychologist Timothy Wilson, two opposing tendencies are constantly battling it out within us. One we could call the truth seeker, whose purpose is to get the most accurate information about the world; the inner spin doctor, on the other hand, aims for the most feel-good interpretation of things. Somehow we need to reconcile both of their interests.

Seneca said that, “Both hope and fear belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”

And that may be a clue about how to do hope, which is without too much anticipation.

Being hopeful about your job interview doesn’t mean you have to convince yourself that things will turn out as you’d like, so try to suspend judgment about the outcome. Hoping well is difficult. All it requires is believing that what we want can happen, not that it definitely will.

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The Sage

Where there’s life, there’s hope, it’s said. It also seems to be assumed that where there’s no hope, there’s no life, that we need hope as much as we do food and drink.

I’m not so sure. Hope is a combination of desire and expectation for something uncertain, unguaranteed. Whether strong or faint, all a hope needs to be sustained is a want and the belief that it might possibly come to pass.

The problem with this is not the wanting. Although some world-denying spiritual paths advocate the subduing of all appetite, the world-affirming among us accept that some desire is good and necessary to motivate action.

Nor is there anything wrong with expectation. Well-grounded beliefs about what will probably happen are indispensable. Without them we would confront every new situation unprepared.

Given that desire and expectation are both necessary, they will also inevitably sometimes converge on the same thing. We can and should anticipate getting what we want. But desire and expectation riding in tandem is different from them becoming fused, part of the same blend of belief and emotion called hope.

Think about going for a job. You can both want the job and think you have a good chance of getting it. If you don’t allow thoughts of potential success to inform and fuel your desire and you then aren’t appointed, you can simply accept you did not get what you wanted. But if your desire and belief are conflated, one feeding the other, you are left hanging on to a hope which could lift you to joy or dash you against the rocks.

To live without hope is therefore to pull off the trick of desiring and anticipating at the same time, without them becoming one thing. It’s a subtle distinction but one which I think makes sense. Maintaining it frees us from being hostages to fortune, since if how we feel is not intimately bound up with our expectations, we are less vulnerable if they are unmet. It is easier to live with unsatisfied desires and unfulfilled expectations than under the heavy weight of crushed hopes.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@ft.com

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