The feeling when you have lost almost all hope or ability to reach a goal. You will do anything to still achieve it.

You feel desperation when you want to reach a goal, or prevent something really bad from happening, but it seems nearly impossible that you will succeed1. For example, you are trying to save a company that is on the verge of bankruptcy, you are trying to score in the last minute of a sports match where you are three points behind, or you are working to a deadline tomorrow, and you still have a week’s amount of work. In each of these cases, you have a clear goal, but the prospects are dire. However, you use your last bit of hope (or denial) to still achieve it, in any way you can2.

People in desperation are often willing and able to do things they would otherwise not consider, such as breaking the law or begging for help, depending on the importance of the goal. This tenacious behavior can sometimes seem irrational, but sometimes lead to surprising outcomes. And, apart from the small chance that one still succeeds, acts of desperation can function as a relief from future guilt, because someone can at least feel that they tried everything.

In the comic, Murphy is desperately trying to convey his ideas to the senior management of his company, who slowly but surely become more captivated by their smartphones and each other.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“Here goes nothing…”

“You’re my last hope!”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Desperation & Distress

Distress and desperation are both emotions that someone can have who is seriously in trouble. They are both characterized by being overwhelmed, not knowing what to do, and if possible, finding others to help you. The key difference between the emotions is that desperation is about not reaching a crucial goal, and thus future-directed, while distress is about something bad that is happening to you right now. For example, if you just dropped and broke your new phone, you are likely to feel distress, but not desperation, because there is not a goal involved.

Desperation & Frustration

Frustration and desperation are both emotions about not being able to reach a goal. For example, if you are at the station and have to find the right platform before the train leaves, you can first get frustrated that you cannot find it, and subsequently desperate when the train is about to leave and you still haven’t found it. The most obvious difference between the two emotions is one of intensity: frustration means a person encountered an obstacle while trying to reach a goal, but achievement is still possible. In desperation, it is questionable if he is able to reach the goal at all. Secondly, frustration can be concerned with the specific way in which you reach a goal, whereas desperation is really only concerned with reaching a goal, regardless of the means. For example, you can be frustrated if the printer is malfunctioning and you have to get your typed notes on paper. However, since there are also other, less convenient ways to achieve your goal (e.g., writing your notes down manually), there is no incentive to experience desperation.

Desperation & Longing

Both longing and desperation involve a strong desire for an object or situation that is currently not present. An important difference is that for a desperate person the object or situation is not just desired but seen as crucial for her current wellbeing. A person can long for a delicious meal when she has little money, but if someone is hungry and has no money at all, she will more likely be desperate for food. Therefore, desperation usually leads to very active behavior, whereas longing is more often associated with passive activities like fantasizing.

Sources and further reading