Why hope matters

Most of us see hope as something to get us through difficult times. But psychologists are discovering that it can help us succeed in our everyday life, and that we can all cultivate it. By Tanis Taylor


Why hope matters

By the thirtieth flat, we were thoroughly disheartened. We had seen a succession of properties in varying states of neglect and I was getting more and more pregnant with each.

I befriended estate agents, scoured websites and assailed strangers on the street. Short of becoming a builder, I did everything I could to manifest a home and still, nothing.

That night, I lay in the bath and did something I had never done before: I doubted if it was going to be OK. I was tired. The market wasn’t there. I could put an offer in on an overpriced compromise and call it a day – no one would blame me. Despite this, a little something nagged. It was hope, just a fault-line flicker, barely there. Cursing, I got out of the bath, went onto Gumtree and there, waiting for me, was our new home.

Hope means many things to many people. To some, it is an internal, whispered incantation that things turn out well; to others, it is directed outwards – at God, fate or superstition; while to others still, it is the setting of a goal and the inclination to keep walking despite the odds.

The distinguishing feature of all great leaders throughout history has been that they inspire hope. Not for some celestial reason but, rather, because they have hope. It is a part of their lexicon, their philosophy and their impetus for getting out of bed. For them, hope is not something passive, it is a choice, a can-do attitude accompanied by the active intent to get there.

‘It’s exhilarating to encounter high-hope people,’ writes clinical psychologist CR Snyder, co-author of Making Hope Happen. ‘How they think about life is infectious. They leave trails of energy and positive feelings wherever they go.’ Hope is harnessed as an evolutionary engine, the concept of human improvement – inspiring us to go forward, do better, achieve great things.

Within religion hope was prized highly. Of faith, hope and charity, it was hope that bound us together in a belief in the afterlife, allowing us to transcend our immediate situation, believe in God’s will and look to a future of promise and possibilities. Without hope, whole cultures would have been sunk.

On a personal level, hope is good for us. High-hopers procrastinate less, can withstand discomfort and pain more (twice as much, studies prove) and are less anxious and have fewer depressive symptoms than their less hopeful peers.

Hope is an essential attribute in care-givers, a predictor of success within business, academics and politics (politicians whose speeches are positive are more likely to win elections than those who are negative) and equips us well for adversity, giving us the drive to start another day/project/relationship.
In 1994, Snyder radically advanced our understanding of hope when he undertook the first serious scientific probe to demystify it. Rather than some nebulous construct, hope, he found was distinctly concrete – goal-directed thinking.

Snyder used the analogy of a journey, for which you need three things – a destination (a goal), a route (a pathway) and means of transport (agency) to get there. He noticed that in high-hope individuals, these three modes of thinking – goal-setting, pathways and agency thinking – are highly developed and their journeys more successful. Participants who scored lower on the hope scale might share general goals (to be thin or to find love, say) and have a hunch as to how to get there (diet or date), but they lacked either the specific focus, the active agency or the creative thinking to find alternative pathways when they encountered obstacles, and therefore they faltered. To become more hopeful, summarised Snyder, you must hone your goal-directed thinking.

Children in a playground do this intuitively, says psychologist and director of the annual Gallup Well-Being Forum, Shane Lopez. ‘A child’s vision transforms a series of obstacles – tall ladders, hard-to-reach monkey bars – into limitless opportunities for fun. Goals become very clear – I am going to swing across all the monkey bars – the plan develops, and support is requested while confidence grows.’

But as adults, our goals can falter and lose focus. Jennifer Cheavens, one of Snyder’s protégées, is trialling hope therapy in Ohio State University to rekindle this child- like clarity. She works with participants on setting goals, finding new ways of reaching them and looking at the agency and energy required to achieve this. Her results have been positive, life-affirming and long-lasting.

‘Hopeful people are radically realistic,’ says Cheavens. ‘Rather than having their heads in the clouds, they look at what obstacles might come up and steel themselves for the eventuality. There’s always been a worry that those high in hope will ignore the warning signs that there’s a problem – they won’t go to the doctor, for example – but the research is to the contrary. High-hope people tend to be more knowledgeable about their health conditions, more able to use that information and less scared to look at possible obstacles.’ They subscribe less to fatalism. ‘And use more agency in their lives.’

‘Success,’ wrote Winston Churchill, ‘is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.’ We encounter obstacles all day long, but a hopeful person generates more pathways through. The difference between getting there and getting stuck is a matter of mindset. We can give up at hurdles, or we can continue to hope, approaching all the intervening obstacles as  just another monkey bar.