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Durham University

Centre for Spirituality, Theology & Health

Hope and Optimism: Theology, Psychology and Mental Health

by Dr Fraser Watts, Visiting Professor of Psychology and Religion, University of Lincoln

Thursday 11 May 2017 (4.30-6pm)
Spirituality, Theology & Health seminar series (Durham University)

This seminar took place in Seminar Room B (D/TH004, Dept. of Theology & Religion, Abbey House, DH1 3RS, Durham).

To watch the Lecture, please click here.

Hope has been an important theme in both theology and psychology in recent decades, but there has been very little engagement between them concerning hope. Theology has often made a distinction between hope and optimism, and more recently that distinction has been made in psychology too. Optimism emphasises expectations about the future, and is most commonly found when circumstances are favourable. Hope, in contrast, can exist in unfavourable conditions in which there are no grounds for optimism, and is more a matter of attitude than expectation.

Psychological research on hope has been dominated by Snyder’s conceptualisation of it as reflecting the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals, and be capable of following those pathways. From a theological perspective that seems based on too simplistic a view of what goals are desirable, and places too much emphasis on self-efficacy in bringing those goals about. Theology would tend to assume that worthwhile goals are achieved more collaboratively, and as a result of openness to transcendent resources.

Research on depression has identified hopelessness as one of its key characteristics. It seems to be both a symptom of depression and something that maintains depression. Though this research has generally not been specific about what kind of hope is lacking in depression, measures of hopelessness often seem to be focusing on a lack of optimism, though it is arguable that a lack of hope would be of greater causal significance in maintaining depression. It is also not clear that, in order not to be depressed, people need a sense of self-efficacy rather than a sense that goals can be achieved more collaboratively.

Fraser Watts is Visiting Professor Psychology and Religion at the University of Lincoln. He is also Director of the Cambridge Institute for Applied Psychology and Religion, and Executive Secretary of the International Society for Science and Religion. He was formerly Reader in Theology and Science in the University of Cambridge, where he was Director of the Psychology and Religion Research Group and a Fellow of Queens’ College. He is a former President of the British Psychological Society and of the International Society for Science and Religion. His books include Theology and Psychology (Ashgate, 2002); Psychology for Christian Ministry (with Rebecca Nye and Sara Savage, Routledge, 2002); Forgiveness in Context (edited with Liz Gulliford, T & T Clark, 2004); Jesus and Psychology (DLT, 2007); Spiritual Healing: Scientific and Religious Perspectives (CUP, 2011); Head and Heart: Perspectives from Religion and Psychology (edited with G Dumbreck, Templeton Press, 2013) Evolution, Religion and Cognitive Science: Critical and Constructive Essays (edited with L Turner, OUP, 2014). He has an overview of the psychology of religion, Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, in press with CUP. He is currently working on a book on religion and the body.