What researchers learned about hope in a place where everyone is shockingly optimistic

Shiny, happy people.
Shiny, happy people.
Image: Reuters/ Mariana Bazo
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Most of the teenagers in the San Juan de Lurigancho district of Peru, have been through some kind of misfortune. Around 90% of respondents to a 2017 survey in the poor Lima neighborhood said they have been either robbed, left by a parent, suffered an accident, or experienced some other kind of mishap.

Yet, just as many polled teens said they are optimistic about improving their lives in the future. Nearly 90% said they want to get a college degree or higher—and feel confident of achieving that goal, according to a recently-published study by the Brookings Institution.

Researchers at Brookings and Oxford University are zooming into San Juan to study whether hope for a better future can actually lead to one. It’s a good place to look into that question, because despite hardship—or perhaps because of it—young people there remain remarkably optimistic.

Not much is known about the role of hope in shaping a person’s life, according to the Brookings paper. Some previous studies suggest that optimistic people have better health and better jobs; others show that people are not great at predicting their future—whether they see it as bright or dark. An even more tenuous question is where hope, high aspirations, and the determination to achieve them come from.

The data from the San Juan survey, which polled 400 18- and 19-year-olds, suggest a positive attitude makes a difference. The more optimistic teens—those who have higher aspirations—are more likely to stay away from alcohol, unsafe sex, and drugs than those with lower aspirations. They are also less likely to get arrested, according to their responses. The researchers see this as evidence that teens hopeful about their futures “are more likely to invest in those futures or, at the least, not pursue behaviors that are likely to jeopardize their futures.”

To measure the impact of hope and high aspirations over a longer period of time, the researchers analyzed the results of a previous Oxford University survey among kids in the same Peruvian neighborhood. That poll, dubbed Young Lives, tracked children from 2002 to 2014. By the later rounds, 60% of them had lived up to their aspirations in education; of the remaining 40%, half had exceeded their goal, according to the Brookings paper.

Its authors are planning to check in on their own sample in a year. That will provide extra data on the power of aspirations as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and perhaps, on the nature of hope. What makes the young people of San Juan so optimistic?

The authors are already offering an inkling: It could be related to the drop in poverty and rising middle class in Peru. But it probably also has to do with San Juan kids’ constant brush with hardship and the resilience they built because of it.