Driven by Hope: Economics and Theology in Dialogue

Cees PhotoHow do we understand the multifaceted phenomenon of ‘hope’ and how can it be measured? In this blog, Cees Tulp details explorative research that offers an empirical instrument to measure hope – ‘the Hope Barometer’.

Hope is a central theme in human existence. It is the driving force to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a boat as a refugee; it is also the emotion that leaders appeal to – both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in fact. Both leaders strive for a better future, of America in particular, and mention the hope for it frequently. Hope was expressed in the end-of-year message of 2016 in this blog. It is also an incentive behind all sorts of decisions in everyday life. Hope is so much connected with the human existence that it can be called a “dimension of the soul” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope is not only an aspect of being human, it also functions as a driving force and is often articulated as a desire for an uncertain future. It is, however, not to be confused with optimism. “It is not the conviction, that somethings will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is Hope, above all, which gives the strength to live and continually try new things” (Havel 2004, p. 106). Hope therefore is much broader than a certain theological feature or a conviction. It is a phenomenon that saturates the whole human existence.

This multifaceted phenomenon has been around throughout all ages and has been reflected upon for centuries by theologians and philosophers. A person who cannot be left unmentioned in this respect is the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, because of his theology of hope. It is only recently that this theme has drawn the attention of economics and positive psychology. In the approaches that connect hope with economics, there has been relatively little attention for hope as an incentive. However, hope is an important incentive for economics to consider. From an economical perspective, two different types of hope can be distinguished, namely wishful hope and aspirational hope (Lybbert and Wydick 2015, p. 4). Wishful hope does not lead to action, but aspirational hope does. The latter form of hope applies reasoning: it assesses the difficulties of the situation at hand, and it suggests actions that can reasonably be expected to have positive effects. This form of hope has the potential to influence the actions and decisions of human beings, because these decisions and actions take place based on a conviction that it will work out positively. This view on hope is expressed in the definition of hope Martin gives: “To hope for an outcome is to desire (be attracted to) it, to assign a probability somewhere between 0 and 1 to it, and to judge that there are sufficient reasons to engage in certain feelings and activities directed toward it” (Martin 2013, p. 7). If there is certainty that something will or will not going to happen, there is no reason to try to influence the outcome. Only when the future is uncertain, it is sensible to act on it.

It is this connection between hope and economics that is the subject of a joint research project between the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics, which is connected with the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven (Belgium), and the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization, which is connected to the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands). The project is generously funded by the Goldschmeding Foundation for People, Work and Economy.

This project entails explorative research to hope from different disciplines to gain conceptual clarity. Because hope is as complex and ambiguous as the human person himself or herself, it requires interdisciplinary investigation. The aim of the project is first to gain a better understanding of the concept of hope, but furthermore to stimulate a cross-disciplinary dialogue about hope. One of the stimuli has been an academic conference entitled “Driven by Hope: Economics and Theology in Dialogue,” which took place in February 2017 at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven.[i] The second phase of the project seeks to give more insight into the empirical relation between hope and happiness. Besides literature study, an empirical instrument to measure hope has been developed called the Hope Barometer. It is the most complete instrument developed until now to measure hope. In contrast to other instruments to measure hope, the Hope Barometer distinguishes seven different dimensions of hope (thought, emotion, virtue, social hope, economic expectation, institutional trust and spiritual hope). The conceptually seven dimensions of hope are empirically related, but capture at the same time different aspects of hope. Measuring in so many dimensions yields a detailed insight into the quantity and quality of hope. The aim is to provide guidelines to measure hope in countries, organizations and other groups. The results gained will be used to test existing theories about hope and to refine the conceptual framework. A fuller understanding of the phenomenon hope and a fuller developed measurement of it will contribute to the capability of fostering the hope. The project seeks to make aware that hope is a very important phenomenon because of its far-reaching influence on the thought, behavior and emotion of human beings. The phenomenon exceeds the domain of religion, for which it is a good development that it gets broader attention now.

We hope that the research can be continued by a project in which the conceptual framework can be further refined, more empirical research can be done and the dialogue with the capabilities approach can be deepened. Furthermore, we want to explore the practical application of hope for leadership in organizations, by contributing to best practices.

[i] The conference proceedings will be published in our book series Christian Perspectives on Leadership and Social Ethics, which is published by Peeters Publications (Leuven, Belgium).


Havel, V 2004, ‘An orientation of the heart,’ in P Loeb, (ed.), The impossible will take a little while: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear, pp. 106–12. Basic Books, New York.

Lybbert, TJ, & Wydick, B 2015, ‘Poverty, Aspirations, and the Economics of Hope,’ presented at the Conference for Human Dignity, University of Notre Dame, 25 October 2015.

Martin, A 2013, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, Princeton University Press, Princeton.


Cees Tulp completed his BA Theology and Religious Studies at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium. He worked as an intern at the Institute of Leadership and Social Ethics. From his career in software development, he has experience with leadership and the role that hope plays in the general well-being of employees.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s