The New Science of Hope

Economists are beginning to understand how aspiration shapes life outcomes.

A collage featuring U.S. currency, two hands holding test tubes, and a bird carrying a twig
Illustration By Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

Hope feels elusive in America right now. Suicides and fatal drug overdoses—so-called deaths of despair resulting from a seeming lack of hope—are at unprecedented levels. Mental-health problems are on the rise: A recent CDC study of teenagers found a significant increase in sadness and vulnerability to suicide over the past decade, particularly among teen girls—a trend that began well before the coronavirus pandemic. In a recent Gallup poll, only 19 percent of Americans said they believe the country is going in the right direction.

What can our society do to encourage hope and combat despair? We might typically think of hope as a touchy-feely emotion that, almost by definition, is divorced from real-life experience. In fact, as more research is beginning to show, hope is an important scientific concept—something we can define, measure, analyze, and ultimately cultivate. Emotions are crucial to a range of human behaviors that have broader economic, social, and political consequences. And hope might just be the most important emotion in that equation, offering a new (if also ancient) way to think about issues such as health, poverty, inequality, education, and despair-related deaths.

The small number of economists who study hope, myself included, define it slightly differently from how people tend to use the word colloquially. In social science, hope is not simply the belief that one’s circumstances will get better; for that, we use the term optimism. Hope is the belief that an individual can make things better.

As an area of academic inquiry, hope has long been overlooked and under-theorized; the economic study of well-being, which explores the determinants of human welfare and quality of life, has primarily focused on happiness and life satisfaction. Those concepts are closely related to hope and usually correlate positively with it, but hope is distinct in its focus on individual agency, which links it closely with people’s life outcomes. Scholars are becoming more adept at measuring levels of hope through self-reported data from survey responses, often validated with biological or psychological markers, such as salivary cortisol levels and genuine Duchenne smiles, which indicate degrees of stress and happiness, respectively.

In individuals, hope is linked to better health and longevity. In 2019, the economist Kelsey O’Connor and I published a study analyzing a group of survey participants, born in the 1930s and ’40s, who had been asked in their 20s or 30s whether they thought their lives would work out—a proxy for hopefulness. (We used the terms hope and optimism interchangeably in this study because it was conducted before there was much research on hope as its own concept.) We found that those who had responded positively to the question about their life prospects were more likely to be alive in 2015 than those in their same peer group (in terms of age, race, and gender) who had responded negatively.

The researcher Julia Ruiz Pozuelo and I further tested the relationship between hope and later outcomes in a longitudinal survey in which we followed 400 low-income adolescents in Peru over a three-year period. The participants reported remarkably high baseline levels of hope and educational aspiration; 88 percent of them told us at the start of the survey that they planned to pursue college or postgraduate education. Three years later, those respondents who planned to pursue higher education were more likely than their peers to be enrolled full-time and had achieved more years of education.

Although the well-being of whole communities is difficult to measure, community-based interventions have been shown to increase the well-being of individuals with low levels of life satisfaction. Because hopefulness and well-being tend to be positively correlated, hope likely has the same spillover effect, but we need more research to verify this. Despair, meanwhile, appears to have negative spillover effects on community well-being, as does having less money than the average person in one’s city, state, or workplace.

So how can individuals and communities become more hopeful? Although research suggests that well-being traits such as innate happiness and hope levels might have a genetic component, hope, like many other traits and emotions, can be influenced by environmental factors such as family stability, education, and opportunity. The economists James Heckman and Tim Kautz have shown that socioemotional traits continue to evolve much later in life than IQ, which doesn’t change much after the late 20s. This suggests that one’s level of hope can differ over time. In the study of people born in the 1930s and ’40s, O’Connor and I found that Black Americans and women experienced increases in hope in the late ’70s, likely because of expanded civil rights, while men with less than a high-school education experienced decreases in hope over the same time period.

Perhaps the simplest way to cultivate hope among populations and places where it is lacking is to get isolated people, particularly older ones, out into their communities through opportunities to volunteer, participate in the arts, and spend time in nature. For children, teaching tools for developing self-esteem, resilience, and coping has been successful in middle and high schools across the United Kingdom. For young adults, our survey in Peru offered an important takeaway: Although not one of the participants had a college-educated parent (most of their parents were taxi drivers, vendors, or domestic workers), the majority reported having had a mentor in their family or community who supported their aspirations. Mentorship and community support can also help those in need of mental-health care seek and find it. This is particularly important in underserved areas.

Government also has a role to play. As several of my colleagues and I noted in a recent Brookings report, an important first step is to regularly track well-being in official government statistics as other countries, such as the U.K. and New Zealand, do. A standard indicator of well-being in the United States—something like a GNP for satisfaction—would allow us to take note of drops before they become full-blown crises. Life satisfaction would be an obvious first measure to track, because it is the most commonly used metric of well-being, but adding a measure of hope would enhance our understanding of the public’s well-being. The government also should provide more support for local and community efforts to cultivate hope, which could be done without great expense; what’s needed most is logistical support and information about efforts that have worked in other places.

To prevent the transmission of widespread despair, we must continue to expand our understanding of human well-being and put our findings into practice. The science of hope could play an essential role in improving life for the next generation.