One Easter weekend, I stood in the guard tower of Auschwitz/Birkenau Death Camp. With a heavy heart I was in awe of the massive camp, the ovens, the train tracks, the barracks, the bathrooms, the despair.
Tourists all about me took pictures, chatted, and even laughed and joked without any apparent effect from what they were witnessing. Tears filled my eyes as I recalled the many personal stories I have read and studied over the years of those who had experienced the concentration camps of World War II.
Flooded with emotion, my thoughts turned to Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who wrote about his experiences in a concentration camp. He, along with his father, mother, brother, and wife were all imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. He was the only one who survived.
During his three years as a prisoner, Frankl witnessed unspeakable cruelty and endured great suffering. What helped him survive was hope. He warned that “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect,” and that “the prisoner who had lost faith in the future (his future) was doomed.” It took hope to survive.
How does a concentration camp, one of the most depressing places on earth, teach us about happiness?
Within the confines of a concentration camp, we can learn some of the greatest lessons on how to gain a sense of well-being. Living with a sustained feeling of hope is just one of those lessons.
What is Hope?
Most people use the word hope as a causal wish that things will magically improve in the future.
“I hope I get rich someday.”
“I hope I can lose weight.”
“I hope she will listen to me.”
“I hope I can find my lost ring.”
This is not the kind of hope we are discussing. We are discussing the kind of hope that sustains you and brings an inner sense of well-being. This is best defined by an example.
At age 17, I went with my dad to visit a distant relative. While there, I was invited by a young man I met to hang out at his home. I found myself on a very rural two-lane farming road with no streetlights to subdue the darkness.
Previously, I had only driven on roads bright with street lights. Now, the only light was the beam of the headlights on the road before me. At first, I was suffocated by the power of this kind of darkness.
Creeping down the road very slowly, I felt fear through my whole body. I thought I was going to hit something or that a wild animal was going to come out of the darkness. My eyes darted from side to side trying to make out all the hidden dangers. However, as I concentrated on the ever-present light beaming from my headlights, I relaxed.
My headlights did not light the whole journey. Most of the journey before me was still in the dark, but I could still move forward because I had enough light to move into the darkness. Hope is like the headlights.
Driving down a dark road without headlights would be scary and dangerous just as living life without hope would be overwhelming and, at times, unbearable. Hope is living in faith that the light in front of you is enough instead of living in the grips of fear. (See Depression: “The Journey from Fear to Faith”)
Life-sustaining hope is not having all the answers, but living life anyway.
Hope–Why It’s a Big Deal
Research demonstrates that with all the hard knocks life brings, hopeful people fare better.
The question is how does having hope make a difference?
Hopeful people make healthier lifestyle choices.
For example, a hopeful person would eat healthy today with the hope of good health today and in the future (rather than saying “I hope I’ll be healthy someday.”) Hopeful people get better faster when they are sick, and they live longer (Christopher Peterson).
The research in the field of positive psychology indicates that hopeful people feel increased life satisfaction and happiness. They are more effective problem solvers and demonstrate greater resilience when barriers arise (Sonja Lyubomirsky). When you live with a sense of hope, you enjoy more positive relationships. That is quite an impressive list of benefits from adopting a hopeful world view.
Hope is living with an inner sense that today’s pain has meaning and purpose and that we have enough to keep moving forward. This kind of hope brings patience with today’s circumstances.
Hopeful individuals experience less depression and anxiety because they find greater purpose and meaning in life (David B. Feldman and C. R. Snyder).
Victor Frankl was able to endure the concentration camp because of the meaning he assigned to the experience. He focused on love and his ability to choose integrity even in the most extreme of circumstances.
Research calls this “benefit finding” as a means of feeling hope. An example of benefit finding would be the following statement from a young father of an acutely ill newborn:
Right after she was born, I remember having a revelation. Here she was only a week old, and she was teaching us something–how to keep things in their proper perspective, how to understand what’s important and what’s not. I’ve learned that everything is tentative; that you never learn what life is going to bring. I’ve come to realize that I shouldn’t waste any more time worrying about the little things.
An older woman with rheumatoid arthritis said,
Living with this disease has taught me so many precious things that I wouldn’t have learned if I were healthy. I guess the most important things it has taught me are to appreciate what life can hold for you every day and to be grateful for the loving relationships in your life. (Journal of Personality, vol 64, no 4 Glen Affleck and Howard Tennen)
These two examples teach that, when going through hard experiences, hopeful people may ask themselves questions like:
What gift of wisdom has this experience given me?
Have others had similar experiences, and what can I learn from them?
How has this experience helped me increase my compassion for others?
How can this experience help me to live my life in faith instead of in fear?
When training new students in the skills of providing therapy, I teach that the first session has one goal–to instill hope.
Clients seek therapy because they are in distress of some kind. They feel they have exhausted their resources and are looking for relief. In the first session, hope brings the needed relief.
You live out the hope in the present moment as you build a sense of hope for the future. You have a faith that the light ahead is enough to move forward in your journey.
When we feel hope, we have a sense of well-being even when we are experiencing the inevitable hardships of life. Empowered Life Solutions premium content teaches strategies for developing hope.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Affleck, Glen, & Tennen, Howard. (1996). “Construing benefits from adversity: Adaptational significance and dispositional underpinnings.” Journal of Personality 64(4).
Feldman, David B., & Snyder, C. R. (2005). “Hope and the meaningful life: Theoretical and empirical association between goal-directed thinking and life meaning.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(3), 401-21
Frankl, Viktor E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning.
Lyubomirsky, Sonja. (2008). The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.
Peterson, Christopher. (1988). “Explanatory style as a risk factor for illness.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 12(2), 119130.