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Some people are unflappable optimists. The gambler who just knows that the next roll will be a winner. The patient diagnosed with cancer who is sure he can beat it. Or the Cubs fan who knows that this year is the year. What makes us hopeful? When is optimism reasonable? Are hope and optimism good for us?

Through two grants from the John Templeton Foundation, sociologists, philosophers, and scientists are seeking to explain precisely what constitutes hope and optimism, to probe what makes us hopeful and optimistic, and to discern when and where they are good for us.

With support from a $4.4 million grant, Samuel Newlands from the University of Notre Dame and Andrew Chignell at Cornell University are administering a series of competitive research grants to sociologists and psychologists investigating big questions about the nature of hope: What is it? How does it correlate with well-being? And how does it function in different contexts such as when our health is challenged, or when we are considering our fate in the afterlife? In addition to academic research, the grant also aims to create greater understanding of hope and optimism through the arts. This phase of the project includes a short film competition (the winners of which can be seen at the Hope & Optimism website) and a playwriting competition, with the play of the winning script to be produced in Ithaca, New York, and Los Angeles in the spring of 2017.

While it is important to understand the phenomena of hope and optimism more rigorously, it is also critical to understand them as lived realities. Through a $450,000 grant from the Foundation, Wake Forest psychologists Eranda Jayawickreme and Will Fleeson investigated how hope and optimism, along with other positive traits, can emerge in the wake of trauma. The project sought to address whether adversity truly builds character and has the capacity to foster increased optimism.

“Many people find narratives involving overcoming adversity and growing from such experiences intuitively compelling,” says principal investigator Eranda Jayawickreme, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and a visiting scholar at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Indeed, many of us can point to experiences from our own lives that we believed strengthened our character. However, we, as scientists, need to have a better understanding of whether this ‘growth’ is as ubiquitous as people claim, what the scope of these positive changes is, and what factors may promote and limit such changes. I am hopeful that this grant has the potential to significantly advance our understanding of whether adversity can lead to positive changes in character, and if so, what these changes would be.”

The research by Jayawickreme and Fleeson uncovered important dynamics of the relationship between trauma and post-traumatic growth. For example, Jayawickreme reported that “positive prospection (seeing ‘new doors opening’ and walking through them) is an important mechanism for facilitating post-traumatic growth” and fostering renewed optimism. In addition, the two psychologists have launched a website, the Growth Initiative, which profiles their research and other work on this important topic.

The grants are the among the latest in a series of the Foundation’s inter-disciplinary projects aimed at unraveling the nature of character and the power of personal growth.

— January 24. 2017

For more information about projects supported by the John Templeton Foundation, please visit the Grant Database.