In her latest book, “The Power of Hope: How the Science of Well-Being Can Save Us from Despair,” by Carol Graham, a professor of economics at College Park, Graham explores the scientific drivers of well-being and reveals a compelling finding: People are penetrated of people with hope are not only happier and healthier, but also more likely to take advantage of opportunities, keep a job and work for a better future.
An expert in “well-being economics,” Graham studies happiness and hope as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her research has tracked signs of hope and despair and their impact on health, education, and prosperity in Latin America and the United States, particularly among young people, for over two decades. It has led countries like England and New Zealand to incorporate well-being metrics into policymaking, but the United States is said to be lagging behind.
“Hope is the key to hopes and investments in the future, but also to life expectancy,” she said. “And in the United States we are in trouble. We really need to pay attention to that.”
Graham spoke to Maryland Today about the dangerous side of despair, the connection between hope and longevity, and the population most at risk:
What is hope?
I distinguish between hope and optimism. They have some things in common – both are convinced that things will get better. The difference, however, is that the optimist simply believes that things will get better, but hope requires individual agency. It’s not just the belief that things will get better, but the belief that you can do something to make them better, and that makes a big difference in terms of results.
Her research has linked levels of hope to early mortality. Can hopelessness kill you?
Of all the measures our research team used to track despair trends across cohorts and their association with subsequent deaths of despair, lack of hope was the most important. People with hope have higher life satisfaction – they are more likely to be healthier, live longer, work longer, and invest in themselves. And we see this across all ages and populations. One definition of despair is not caring whether you live or die. If that is your emotional state, you will not take advantage of the opportunity to invest in your future.
What surprised you in your research on hope in the United States?
Our data has shown that African Americans are much more hopeful than whites – they are much more resilient. We are seeing an even greater gap between low-income blacks and whites. When we first observed this I thought it was a coding error, but it has been confirmed time and time again and I think part of that is the role of communities.
White Americans have historically had, on average, safer and more stable lives, but they typically do not have the large extended communities found among Black Americans. Given that minorities have been historically discriminated against, there is a very different sense of falling behind and mutual aid than the individualistic view of the American dream held largely by white workers. The problem is that when they fell behind, they had no other narrative.
How does despair enter public discourse?
One of the things I’ve been working on lately is the connection between despair and susceptibility to misinformation and conspiracy theories. Prime-age white men who have retired from the workforce feel highly displaced and tend to be isolated. These are the people who are very easy to radicalize. And if you look at where they’re concentrated, they generally don’t have local newspapers, they don’t have any educational opportunities beyond high school – they’re mostly in run-down manufacturing facilities.
We have some preliminary data on the makeup of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th; The majority were isolated from their families and communities. If you’re in this mood, you have nothing to lose.
How do we restore hope?
That is a difficult question. Part of the solution lies in accurate diagnosis alone: why don’t we measure well-being like other countries so we can focus our efforts on the most vulnerable populations? Places like England that track well-being are now testing interventions – programs as simple as access to volunteer work that get people out of their homes and give them meaning and purpose. These are the things that people in desperation lack.
They have a program that teaches middle and high school students soft skills and socio-emotional skills such as self-esteem and combating loneliness. Then three years later they assess the children’s academic performance and well-being, and it actually works on both fronts. In my interviews with young people who had just graduated from high school in low-income areas of the United States, they had no idea what came next.
And it is precisely these soft skills, these socio-emotional skills, that will be most valued in tomorrow’s labor markets. We really need to think about things like this.