Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hopelessly Hopeful

Research indicates many of our hopes are actually 'false hopes.' At different points in life, we have all attempted to change something about ourselves and failed. It could be instances of trying to lose weight, quit smoking, workout regularly, start running, study regularly, or something else. Most of us have all made New Year's resolutions and failed to keep them. Most likely we all started working on improving our lives with great enthusiasm. We may have even achieved intial success in changing ourselves, but then something happened (or didn't happen) and we relapsed to our poor old selveswe failed. Research indicates that people tend to make the same resolutions year after year, vowing on average 10 times to eradicate a particular vice. A very small percentage of people succeed in attempts of self-change, and those who do, do so only after an average of five to six times of failure. In other words, according to some research, the high hopes we harbor about bringing about great positive changes in ourselves may all actually be false hopes. We continue to make the same resolution year after year, obviously because our past attempts failed. Yet, we are often oblivious to these failuresor at least, don't factor them while estimating the likelihood of our successand believe we can change ourselves.

Even when we improve, our improvement is often very temporary. Take dieting for example: In a study, researchers found that about a third of patients regained weight within a year of losing it, about two-thirds regained it within three years, and 80% to 90% regained it in five years. Weight is fortunately not a problem for me (yet), but the general arguments about false hopes makes me wonder if all (or majority of) our hopes are really false hopes. What do you think? Are all our dreams actually mirages? Are we all chasing mirages?

If changing ourselves is so difficult, imagine how difficult or impossible it would be to change a society or a nation. Today I watched an interview of the Dalai Lama on In response to a question by Fareed Zakaria about how hopeful he was about the resolution of the Tibet issue, the Dalai Lama said, "When we look Tibet issue locally... then [it is] hopeless. [However,] if we look Tibet issue from a wider perspective, I feel much hope." These words from the Dalai Lama got stuck with me. I wondered, "How can the Dalai Lama be hopeful, when the Chinese government's power and aggressive posturing on Tibet has been increasing continuously over several decades?" After some thought I realized that what the Dalai Lama said about Tibet is actually applicable to all areas of our lives. Things seem hopeless only when we see things from a narrow perspective; from a broader perspective, even the most hopeless situation can be very hopeful.

Going back to the research studies I discussed earlier, the findings seemed depressing because the researchers saw the problem from a narrow perspective. Technically, those studies had a within-subjects design, i.e., the effect of a particular treatment (viz., diet or resolution) was measured by how subjects did before and after the treatment. In almost all cases, subjects trying to lose weight regained the weight they lostthis then became the argument and evidence for false hopes. A broader perspective of looking at the same problem would have been comparing dieters with non-dieters, or comparing the (false) hopeful dieters with those who were not optimisticbetween-subjects designs. I am positive a marked difference would be found between these two groups of people on health parameters. The dieters may have regained the weight they lost, but their hope and optimism would ensure that they would have significantly less negative health indicators (e.g., level of bad cholesterol, etc.) than those who don't even try because of less hope. I would bet that the dietersdespite their failure in maintaining a weight losswould have significantly longer life span than those obese people who never tried to change.

In summary, my point is that it is ok to have false hopes. False hopes may lead to disappointment, but even in the disappointment we move far ahead than what we would have without harboring any hopes. Not having any hopes would mean living a life of despairwe know that such negative emotions suppress the immune system. So, let's live a life of hopeeven if it may be false hopebecause feelings of hope bring smiles to our faces. It allows us to enjoy life and laugh freely. Let's fail ten thousand times and still be hopeful like Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Success and happiness, I believe, are always filled with hope.


  1. As a researcher and professional it would auger well to say 'some of the overweight people' instead of 'those obese people'. we should be careful not to appear accusing...

  2. Dear Anonymous,
    I appreciate your constructive feedback. Thanks.