By Patricia Bruininks
Lose 10 pounds. Stop smoking. Spend less money. Learn something new. Help others with their dreams. Enjoy life to the fullest.
According to an article on www.statisticbrain.com, these were six of the top 10 new year’s resolutions for 2014. They are some of the things to which we Americans aspire, and the fresh start that a turn of the calendar provides gives us hope that we can do better.
The first three resolutions listed above are what psychologist Tim Kasser refers to as extrinsic aspirations. These types of aspirations tend to be materialistic in nature and focus on obtaining rewards and the positive evaluation of others. The latter three resolutions are categorized as intrinsic aspirations; they satisfy the inherent psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence, and growth. Not surprisingly, research has shown that having relatively more intrinsic goals predicts a number of positive mental health outcomes. It’s not that striving to be healthy and thrifty are unworthy desires; rather they are means to an end, and too much focus on these does not bring the quality of life we are searching for.
My psychology research lab at Whitworth has examined these two types of aspirations in relationship to the experience of positive and negative anticipatory emotions. Participants completed the Aspirations Index; they also rated their fear worry, optimism, and hope for five imagined events. Extrinsic aspirations predicted fear about future events whereas intrinsic aspirations predicted optimism and hope. Thus, part of the mental health that intrinsic desires afford is the experience of hope and optimism, words we often associate with the new year.
But even within this positive anticipation, there are distinctions. Optimism relates to aspirations that we feel are likely to happen and that we have some control over. In fact, the word optimism did not come into common usage until the industrial revolution was well underway. It may be that before then, people did not talk so much about anticipation of events that were likely to occur because life offered much more uncertainty than certainty. The word hope, however, has been in usage for millennia. It is the desire we have for better things — either for ourselves or others — that can withstand doubt and disquietude. When the chips are down we are not optimistic, but we might still be hoping. And while we found intrinsic desires to predict both hope and optimism, the prediction of hope was considerably stronger.
The word hope appears approximately 150 times in the Bible, but you will not find the word optimism. The history of usage is perhaps one reason, but it may also be because hope is an investment of self; we put energy towards hoping only for things that are important, and God is not concerned with trivial matters. Therefore, it concerns me that the experience of optimism and its related desires may be crowding out our experience of hope. If we can aspire for what is relatively easy to gain through our own means, why bother with the uncertainty that comes with hoped-for desires? That is, does the temporary high of obtaining aspirations via our own efforts weaken our hoping muscle?
One of my aspirations for the new year is to work on developing the virtue of hope. This may involve seeking social support during challenging times, learning through those experiences, and even helping others realize their hopes. It will also involve relying on my faith in God and belief in his goodness and love. Thus, my desire for 2015 is to be better at looking past temporary satisfactions that can be purchased and focus on hope in a new way, one that leads to a more transformative life.
Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Aspirations for the New Year” at 10 a.m., Jan. 3 at Indaba Coffee/The Book Parlor. Bruininks is a panelist.
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