As a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, I rarely see the glass as half full. So when a young colleague told me I have “radical hope,” I thought she had mistakenly sent me an email meant for another.

She proclaimed this upon my helping her escape a toxic work environment — her first professional position — intact. There, an abusive department head systematically undermined department members’ mental (and physical) well-being with intimidating divide-and-conquer tactics.

My colleague knew from my criticism of positive psychology that I’m against pushing bright-sided thinking on others, including the hope and optimism that positive psychologists consider to be virtuous “character strengths” that entail expecting that “future good events will outweigh bad events.”

Although an optimistic coping style works well for many people, it can diminish constructive coping for many others. I have often said that there’s no one right way to cope with all the pain of living. Therefore, we should not insist that others cope in ways that work best for each of us.

In an interview for the article “Seeing Pessimism’s Place in a Smiley-Faced World” and in the NPR This I Believe essay “A Positive Attitude is Overrated,” I made a case for allowing people to feel bad in tough times. Barraging people in distress with look-on-the-bright-side, be-grateful-for-what-you-have mandates can make them feel bad about feeling bad: I call this the “tyranny of the positive attitude.”

Given my negative views about mandatory positivity, how could my colleague describe me as hopeful? She explained that “radical hope” is not the kind that is “syrupy or positive,” but rather “the kind that refuses to believe that this broken/unjust world is all that is possible” and demands acting on that belief.


I’ve never considered my belief in the potential of taking action to effect change to be a form of hope. But I knew I was born to fight — especially lies and injustice, which work synergistically. When Mainers find my in-your-face style off-putting, even after 42 years of residency, I apologetically explain, “You can take the girl out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the girl.”

Activist journalist Barbara Ehrenreich famously wrote in “Pathologies of Hope”: “I hate hope. . . . There. It’s out. Let pestilence rain down on me, for a whole chorus of voices rise up to insist that hope, optimism, and a ‘positive attitude’ are the keys to health and longevity.” Ehrenreich said we shouldn’t “mistake this condition for hopelessness, in the beaten or passive sense, or confuse it with unhappiness.” She concluded, “The trick, as my teen hero Camus wrote, is to draw strength from the ‘refusal to hope . . . .’ To be hope-free is to acknowledge the lion in the tall grass, the tumor in the CAT scan, and to plan one’s moves accordingly.”

In other words, rather than merely hoping for good outcomes, we should take action based on knowing the hard realities that confront us. Ehrenreich seemingly has my kind of hope: the belief that by knowing the real, we can take informed action that can bring better outcomes in principle, albeit not always in practice. Ukrainian civilians who’ve taken up arms and made Molotov cocktails to resist Russian invaders surely embody radical hope, including those who accept they may fail.

Taking action in situations that aren’t life-threatening can also reflect radical hope. For example, I contribute to 2022 Democratic candidates across America despite my fear that trying to preserve democracy in America will require pulling a pro-democracy rabbit out of the anti-democracy MAGA hat that the many Trump-aligned Americans have readily donned. In my view, sending aid to Ukraine might be a better bet, not owing to the Ukrainian optimism that Americans enthusiastically applaud, but because the Ukrainian people understand the tyranny of autocracy in ways we Americans do not.

Whether Ukrainians’ expectations about their outcome are optimistic or pessimistic, many of them consider not fighting for their freedom to be unthinkable. As a Ukrainian woman explained to a cable news reporter, she’s not sure her people will prevail, but she’d rather die than live under Russian oppression. If only all Americans cared as much about preserving what radically hopeful Ukrainians are laying down their lives to defend.

We don’t need to be optimists to tip the odds in favor of democracy here and abroad; we need the courage of our pro-democracy convictions. Pessimism is not the problem it’s often purported to be in our world and in our everyday lives. Failure to take action is — whatever the threatening circumstance may be.

Barbara S. Held, Ph.D., is a Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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