Peter Pan, Hope, and Purpose: sometimes it’s not about wishing upon a star

By: Paige Holmes

Dearest happy humans,

It would have been expected and courteous of me to post upon this well-made website concerning my expedition to the elegant state of California a long while ago, around the week of our great Independence Day to be specific, but alas, the sweet prosperity and tranquility of the summer months consumed my mental state and I was thus unable to type for weeks on end. In other words, I forgot or didn’t feel like it every day for about a month. Happens.

My trip to California was for the purpose of attending the Third World Congress on Positive Psychology in the downtown Los Angeles Westin Bonaventure Hotel, where I stayed for 5 nights so that I could take part in 4 excellent days chockfull of anything and everything related to Positive Psychology and well-being. I never figured out why it was called a Congress—as far as I know, there were no laws passed or pacts made, aside from the decree I made with myself to make like Peter Pan and never grow up. This I say because I am pretty sure I was one of the youngest persons attending the entire conference, and being around over a thousand ‘grown-ups’ who seemingly know their careers and passions (or at least will jump at any chance to tell you about it) was so overwhelming that at times I wanted to surreptitiously hide in the bathtub of my hotel room, with coloring books and my first ever stuffed animal, whom I had cleverly named Big Kitty.

Since I had stupidly left Big Kitty at home, I mustered up some courage to act like I knew what I was doing with my life, and with my head held high I strolled into as many workshops, seminars, symposiums, speeches, and presentations as I could. I don’t remember what I had expected before arriving, but I had never experienced anything like it. Aside from the 7am to 11pm jam-packed days of constant moving from workshop to lecture to seminar, it was information overload with only a side dish of connecting with other participants or stopping to remember to breathe. Here I share only a few takeaways:

  • I learned that active effort to increase positive emotions has a stronger impact on one’s well-being than an effort to decrease negative emotions.
  • I learned that spending more time in nature increases positive emotions, creativity, and cognitive benefits, and that WebMD even has a prescription for some infirmities to be in nature for health improvements.
  • I learned, and this really connects with my Peter Pan spiel, that purpose should not be viewed as a noun, like that frequent question of what you are going to be when you grow up (i.e. “my purpose is my career, being a lawyer”), but as a verb, meaning how we actively pursue meaning in our lives (“my purpose is to be needed and to love”).  I quietly threw myself a party in my head during this workshop, when I finally came to terms with the fact that my purpose will not be my career. Knowing what I’m doing with my life is not about a career. What I’m doing with my life is exactly that, taken literally. What I do with my life: every day it is meaningful, and my purpose is who I am.
  • And last but not least, one of the most enriching concepts for me during the conference:  I learned in one of my favorite lectures that many people often equate or confuse hoping with wishing (“I hope it doesn’t rain today” is a wish)—hoping is a way to flourish in the present by thinking positively about the future (such as “It is going to be an immensely enlightening summer this year”), but wishing can be destructive since it is often wanting something that you don’t have control over. The lecture also informed me about a worldwide study, which found that 89% of people believe the future will be better, while only 50% of people believe they can make it so. Therefore the researchers concluded that hope is half optimism, half drive. In other words both thinking positively and driving oneself towards your dreams and goals. When I heard this in a lecture I thought of Disney and all the wishing upon stars—it’s a sweet song, and in the movies the princesses and Pinocchio always get what they wish for, but how often do we in the real world actually rejoice in a wish coming true after a quick, half-hearted toss of a coin in a fountain? Hope is something I have periodically struggled with in quite a detrimental way over the past few years. As a person with a physical disability, at times I have spiraled deep into a pit over what I can’t control, and I realize now that part of that is my habit of wishing and wanting what I don’t have control over, even envying others who have what I want. But I need hope—we all do. I need to live believing that everything is going to be okay, not wishing that it would be different. While I sit now and reflect upon this lecture at the conference, “How Hope Happens,” I think of the millions of people who don’t waste their time wishing. Like the young boy in the orphanage which I am now working at, who told me that he is going to Canada when he grows up because it has snow and is nice to live in, not that he wishes he was in Canada. Like the people in Haiti, whom I heard about through my friends’ stories after they visited, who are both happy and hopeful for their country and their lives, but are not wishing for something different. What a contrast it is between these hopeful people and millions in the U.S. who so often are wishing for bigger and better things. There is not much I can do to change that, but I now make a promise to help others in my life to see the difference between hoping and wishing. And I promise myself to stop wishing, and to hope with confidence and strength that everything will be alright in the end, remembering that timeless mantra: if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.