Hope Optimism Initiative

Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations

Request for Proposals: “The Science of Hope and Optimism”

Award Announcement

The University of Notre Dame and Cornell University, with generous support from The John Templeton Foundation, invite proposals for “The Science of Hope and Optimism” funding initiative. We seek to encourage empirical research from new and established scientists and scholars on hope and optimism. A primary goal of this initiative is to clarify which definitions, concepts and measures of hope and optimism are the most theoretically and practically fruitful. We welcome applications from researchers in cognitive, developmental, personality, and social psychology, as well as sociology. Interdisciplinary teams that include members from cognate areas – e.g. cognitive science, anthropology, and philosophy – are encouraged though not required.

Award Description

Hope and Optimism Directors: Samuel Newlands, University of Notre Dame; Andrew Chignell, Cornell University.

This $1.4 million dollar RFP is intended to support empirical work in psychology and sociology on the nature, measurement, benefits, and costs of hope and/or optimism. Requests are invited for between $50,000 and $250,000 for projects not to exceed two years in duration. We intend to make up to 10 awards.

The Concepts of Hope and Optimism

Social scientists have defined the terms “hope” and “optimism” in many different ways. Researchers often begin with the commonsense notion of dispositional optimism, which is the relatively stable expectation that good things rather than bad things will generally happen. They then go on to use or make reference to concepts such as the optimism of everyday life, big optimism, little optimism, private optimism, public optimism, explanatory style optimism, here-and-now optimism, and end-of-the-story optimism, among others. One goal of the present project is to clarify which definitions, constructs, and measures related to these and other terms are the most theoretically and practically fruitful.

Optimism has received more attention in scientific studies than has hope, and therefore a wider range of measures and characterizations have been proposed, validated, and applied for optimism than for hope. As a result of this imbalance, different evaluative procedures will be used for proposals addressing optimism as opposed to those addressing hope. For proposals addressing optimism, preference will be given to those that clarify and utilize one of the many existing optimism constructs or measures to make progress in the areas outlined in the Key Questions below. With respect to hope, preference will be given to those that utilize characterizations and measures that go beyond the extant psychological literature to address some of the Key Questions.


1. Psychology

For most of the 20th century, psychology emphasized what might be called “negative” disorders and their treatment. Researchers and clinicians seemed to assume that positive inaccuracies, such as optimistically-biased assessments of one’s chances, were undesirable. The neutral and accurate perception of reality was a hallmark of mental health.

Interest in optimism increased in the 1980s when various measures were developed by Michael Scheier, Charles Carver, Neil Weinstein, Shelley Taylor, Martin Seligman, and others. There is now a substantial and growing body of evidence on the correlations between biased optimism and well-being, evidence that challenges the assumption that unbiased accuracy in one’s predictions and assessments is most strongly correlated with health and well-being.

Despite these advances, numerous questions for the psychological study of optimism remain unanswered. For example, it remains unclear whether the correlations between optimism and physical health are due primarily to the benefits of optimism, the harms of pessimism, or both. Prospective and longitudinal studies, together with new meta-analyses of the existing data are needed to clarify the causal and explanatory relations underlying optimism-related phenomena.

Second, comparatively little attention has been paid to the social-psychological dimension of optimism. Similarly, there have been only a few investigations into the genetic, neuropsychological, and environmental roots of optimism. Some studies, such as those on the genetic determinants of optimism, would require substantial resources and large samples; these obstacles have proven difficult to overcome.

The positive effects of hope have received even less attention by psychological researchers. With a few notable exceptions, the extant empirical literature on hope focuses primarily on coping strategies for patients who are in danger of losing hope. Relatively little is known about how hope functions in ordinary contexts and in well-adjusted subjects. In addition, insufficient attention has been given to the psychological and neurological mechanisms underlying hope and hopefulness. Part of the problem is that, unlike in optimism studies, there is not a widely accepted definition and measure for hope. Though C. R. Snyder’s Hope Scales do provide a measure that emphasizes goal-related factors, it is unclear whether these factors are as central to the psychology of hope as his theory predicts. Developmental and social-psychological aspects of hope are also underexplored.

2. Sociology

Strikingly little research on hope and optimism has been done in sociology. Two broad areas have received attention in sociology: optimism and culture; and optimism and religion. Over the last decade, sociologists have explored a number of issues at the intersection of optimism and culture, including apparent cultural differences in levels of optimism, the importance of optimism to the existence of cohesive, flourishing cultures, and the means by which cultural structures and institutions cultivate optimism. Further work needs to be done, however, on the underlying neurological, biological, psychological, religious, and socio-cultural mechanisms that account for the small variations in levels of optimism across cultures. In addition, more studies are needed in order to discover the role of optimism in sustaining cultures, and the precise features of the implicit cultural policies that promote and mediate optimism in a culture.

Over the past few decades, most research on the connection between religion and optimism has been on individual religiosity and how one’s level of religiosity relates to and promotes psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Much less work has been done on religion as a social institution and how it relates to optimism. Further research is needed on how religion—as a complex, multidimensional domain consisting of organizational practices, social relationships, support mechanisms, non-organizational practices, identities, beliefs and experiences, and more—promotes (or deters) optimism. Finally, since the few empirical studies on religion and optimism have been conducted in the U.S. or other western societies that are, for the most part, Judeo-Christian (or post-Christian), further research is needed in non-Judeo-Christian, non-Western contexts.

Key Questions

With the above considerations in mind, we invite proposals for research addressing at least one of the following Key Questions:

A. Psychology

  1. What are the correlations, causal relations, and/or explanatory relationships that hold between optimism, pessimism, and their correlates? For example, is optimism beneficial, or is pessimism toxic, or both? What aspects of optimism and pessimism account for their beneficial or toxic effects?

  2. What is hope? To what other traits or states is it importantly related? How might hope be reliably measured in individuals?

  3. How central are hope and optimism to human physical and mental health? Can individuals flourish without them?

  4. Is optimism bias irrational? If so, in what sense?

  5. Which psychological mechanisms underlie hope and optimism? For example, how do affective, motivational, and cognitive processes differentially contribute to optimism and influence one another? Does hope have positive or negative affective components, both, or neither? Are dual- (or multi-) process models of hope and optimism empirically plausible, and, if so, what is handled by System-1, System-2, etc.?

  6. How do hope and optimism develop? What are their genetic and environmental influences?

  7. Can hope and optimism be taught? What pedagogical methods are most effective for instilling hope and optimism among those who might benefit from them?

B. Sociology

  1. What is hope? How might hope be reliably measured across cultures and social institutions?

  2. What are the social dynamics related to hope and/or optimism? Is hope contagious; if so, what facilitates its transmission? Does optimism have social functions; if so, what are they?

  3. What are the underlying societal, cultural, institutional, familial, and environmental mechanisms that promote optimism?

  4. What accounts for the small yet significant differences in levels of optimism across cultures? How do the causes, effects, mechanisms, and expressions of hope and optimism differ across circumstances, cultures, and other domains?

  5. Is the hope offered by religious doctrine and praxis different in kind or in degree from non-religious sources? How do levels of hope and/or optimism compare in non-Judeo-Christian, non-Western religious contexts? What feature(s) of such religious contexts contribute to higher or lower levels of hope and/or optimism?

Application Instructions

Letters of Intent are due by November 1st, 2014. Invitations for full proposals will be made by December 1st, 2014. Full proposals will be due by February 1st, 2015, with final award decisions issued by March 15th, 2015 for research to begin between July 1st, 2015 and September 1st, 2015.

Letter of Intent (LOI) Stage – all materials must be received by November 1st, 2014

Applicants are required to submit:

  1. A letter of intent that includes the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses the goals and at least one of the Key Questions of this RFP, and a summary of the methodology. The letter cannot exceed 1,000 words (excluding references).

  2. The amount of funding requested (one sentence is fine for this). No budget narrative or justification is needed at this stage. The amount can be revised at the full proposal stage.

  3. A complete curriculum vitae for the PI and for all major team members (if applicable).

Application materials should be submitted by e-mail attachment as a single document to: hope-optimism[at]nd[dot]edu, with the words “Social Science letter of intent” in the subject line. The required documents should be compiled in a single PDF file in the order listed above. The only acceptable file format is PDF. An acknowledgment email will be sent within seven days of receiving your proposal.

Full Proposal Stage – all materials must be received by February 1st, 2015

Full Proposals are due by February 1st, 2015, with award decisions issued by March 15th, 2015, for research to begin between July 1st, 2015 and September 1st, 2015.

Those applicants who are invited to submit full proposals must include:

  1. A cover letter of no more than 1 page with the title, amount requested, duration of the project (not to exceed two years), and team members (if applicable).

  2. A complete curriculum vitae for the PI and for all major team members (if applicable).

  3. A brief abstract of the proposed work of no more than 150 words.

  4. A narrative description of the work to be carried out, not to exceed 5,000 words (excluding references). The description should explain the central questions of the project, the background and significance of the questions, the way in which the project addresses the goals and at least one of the Key Questions of this RFP, the methodology, the researchers’ qualifications to conduct the research, and plans for the dissemination of research outputs. If the proposed work requires access to particular equipment or populations (e.g., school children), the researcher(s) should indicate how they will access these resources during the proposed funding period.

  5. A project summary of up to 500 words which explains the project and its significance to non-academics, and which would be published on the Hope and Optimism website and possibly in Templeton materials, and included in publicity materials if the proposal is funded.

  6. A timeline for the proposed work.

  7. A detailed budget with accompanying narrative explaining line items, totaling between $50,000 and $250,000 in direct + indirect costs. Overhead is limited to 15%, and funds cannot be used for major equipment purchases.

  8. Written approval of the department chair and university signing officials.

Proposals should be submitted by e-mail attachment as a single document to: hope-optimism[at]nd[dot]edu. The words “Social Science Full Proposal” should appear in the subject line. The required documents should be compiled in a single PDF file in the order listed above. The only acceptable file format is PDF. Full proposals will be accepted only from applicants who have been invited to submit by the Project Directors, on the basis of the LOI phase. An acknowledgment email will be sent within seven days of receiving your proposal.

All questions about the application process should be directed to: hope-optimism[at]nd[dot]edu.

Review and Selection Process

Letters of Intent and Full Proposals will be reviewed by the Project Directors, in consultation with a panel of external expert referee. If an LOI or full proposal involves content or methods that require further expertise, additional ad hoc reviewers may be sought.

Selection criteria will include: (1) feasibility of the project within the specified timeframe, (2) prior research accomplishments of the applicant (and other team members, if any), (3) relevance of the project to the key topics and themes, (4) originality and chance of success of the intended project, (5) quality of the budget justification, and (6) coherence of the intended research plan. Strong preference will be given to proposals that are especially innovative and novel relative to current scientific work in these areas.

Grant Eligibility and Requirements

The PI must have a Ph.D. and be in or contracted to a faculty position at an accredited college or university before the Letter of Intent deadline (November 1st, 2014). For projects involving human subjects or non-human animals, appropriate approval for the proposed research must be obtained from an Internal Review Board before the start date of the research.

All applications must be submitted in English and all payments will be made in US dollars.

PIs of funded projects must commit to the following:

  1. Submit interim and final progress reports, as well as interim and final expenditure reports. The interim and final progress reports should not exceed 5 pages, and should detail the outcomes of the funded project. Reports must be submitted at the end of Year 1 and at the conclusion of the project if the project is for more than one year. For projects of one year, reports should be submitted at the end of six months and at the conclusion of the project.

  2. Attend and present findings (initial or final) at the 5-day midpoint interdisciplinary workshop in July 2016 (expenses covered).

  3. Consent to have presentation at the midpoint workshop videotaped for the Hope and Optimism Project website.

  4. Notify the project at: hope-optimism[at]nd[dot]edu of all conference presentations, papers, and books that arise from the funded research, including presentations and publications occurring after the conclusion of the grant.

  5. Follow stipulations of grant award as communicated by Templeton either to the University of Notre Dame or to the recipients directly, and as determined by Notre Dame. This includes complying with all relevant regulations and procedures for human subjects research.

Direct all questions to:



Hope and Optimism: Conceptual and Empirical Investigations

Center for Philosophy of Religion

223 Malloy Hall

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN 46556