The Current

Hope can be a double-edged sword when life feels 'meaningless,' says author Mark Manson

In this vast universe, it's easy to feel as though life is fleeting. We talk to author Mark Manson about his latest book, Everything is F--ked: A Book About Hope, and why he says hope can be destructive to our happiness.

Hope can be dangerous if not wielded responsibly, author Mark Manson argues

Author Mark Manson argues that drowning out one's existential fears with exaggerated optimism just makes the problem worse. (Maria Midoes)
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Hope may sustain life, but it also inflicts its own special kind of damage to us all, argues Mark Manson.

The author of Everything Is F--ked: A Book About Hope, says living in a vast universe with an expiration date can cause many people to feel helpless and hopeless, as though their life is void of meaning.

He first experienced this existential and philosophical crisis as a young teen.

"In high school physics when we learned what the scale of the universe was, I was like 'wow, nothing I do matters.' It was a little bit horrifying at first," he recalled.

"It's a thought that we all have at some point in our lives, [which] we think about from time to time. But I call it the uncomfortable truth because we avoid that thought. ... We look for ways to focus back on the present moment and what's important what we can do today to make our life feel meaningful."

That search for meaningfulness, he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, often comes in the form of hope, which he cautions isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Manson spoke with Tremonti about his book and the double-edged sword of hopefulness. Here is part of their conversation.

How does [the mind] protect itself from the terror of the uncomfortable truth?

So we create what I call in the book "hope narratives," and they can be something as simple as: "Well, if I study I'll get good grades and I'll get a good job and my life will be more comfortable." Or they can be as complex and abstract as: "This God is the one true God and I need to follow all the texts because that's what's going to give my life meaning even after I die." So ... these mental constructions [are] always going on in our minds, and we need them because they are what sustain us from day to day.

Do we always even know we're doing it?

No, absolutely not. And I guess that's one role I try to have with my work is to just show people these little mechanisms that are always running in our minds, because while we need them, they're not always useful. A lot of times they're destructive.

Do you think we see our society having a crisis of hope right now?

I think so, and I think a lot of what we experience as political polarization, outrage culture, a lot of the stuff that's going on in the media — I think a lot of that is is kind of a side effect of these problems of hope.  

People are comfortable but they're also confused. There's a lot of conflicting information out there and so they're latching onto these narratives that give their lives meaning and it's just causing the world to become a very conflicted place.

Mark Manson writes about the power hope has, arguing that it can sustain us or it can destroy us. (HarperCollins Publishers)

So what advice would you give?

I think it's the avoidance of this idea [of nihilism] that causes us to overcompensate and maybe put way too much hope in things that are very destructive. I think there's a kind of liberation that comes with understanding how temporary our own existence is because … the typical assumption is like "Okay, well we're all going to die and none of it's going to matter anyway so why don't I play in traffic and steal from people," or whatever.

And I think you could make the opposite argument which is "Okay, we're all going to die and none of it's going to mean anything so you have no excuse to not love people or to be courageous or to put yourself out there."

So, you can look at it as a liberating force, or as a damning force.

It's almost as if you're saying we need to have a lot of hope with a dash of cynicism as opposed to a whole lot of cynicism with just an itty-bitty bit of hope.

Yeah, absolutely. One of the comparisons I draw in the book is between hope and love.

Everybody assumes that love is always a good thing. Similarly, people always assume that hope is a good thing. I point out that the best experiences in your life usually revolve around love, but also the most painful and destructive experiences in your life all revolve around love.

And so you have to be very, very careful who you love and what the shape and form of that love is.

I think the same is true with hope. We need hope to sustain ourselves, but if we put our hope in the wrong place or if we hold onto it too tightly, it can quickly turn destructive.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Anna Maria Tremonti.

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