Hope. It’s one of those words that you know what it means, but if someone asked you to define it, the meaning might escape you. Is hope a thought? A feeling? A state of mind? It feels great when we have it, and terrible when we don’t. In fact, when we are without hope—as we all are sometimes—it can be difficult to imagine ever feeling its positive glow again.
But being in the depths of despair doesn’t mean we have to stay there. We can learn how to cultivate hope and bring ourselves back to happier feelings. The first step is to define this intangible thing called ‘hope’.
Hope is a positive thought that creates an optimistic feeling. Notice there are two pieces here: thoughts AND feelings. When we feel hopeless, we are bogged down by the ‘feeling’ piece: heaviness, sadness, emptiness, and loneliness. These emotions can be so heavy that we may not even notice how they perpetuate negative thoughts that continue to feed our despair: “I’m no good”, “this won’t work”, “I’ll never find happiness”, “there’s nothing left to live for”. Cultivating hope comes from intercepting those negative thoughts and replacing them with new ones.
Hope theory was developed by American Psychologist Charles Richard Snyder, a pioneer in hope research. His succinct method shows us a clear three step path to turn hopelessness into hopefulness: goal-oriented thinking, pathways thinking, agency thinking. The benefit is that we can evaluate each area to determine where our hopelessness is coming from. This provides a focal point for change.
Hope can be characterized as future-thinking. It’s a state of mind that can imagine positive outcomes. Having a sense that the good things are to come can help make immediate discomforts more tolerable. But if you have no sense of what you want for the future, it will be difficult to imagine it through an optimistic lens. Do you have goals that are meaningful to you? Think about a time when you had a vision of the future you felt positive about. What were you working towards? Why was it meaningful to you? Has the meaning changed for you? Have you lived out past goals without setting new ones? Take a minute to name one or two goals you have for yourself now, no matter how big or small.
Maybe you have a sense of where you’d like to be but just no idea how on earth you’ll get there. This can cause hopelessness and procrastination. ‘Pathways thinking’ encourages us to develop strategies on how to reach our goals. Hope is active, it requires your involvement to grow and move towards imagined positive outcomes. If you’re struggling to find ways towards your meaningful goals, consider your past achievements. Make a timeline of a previous goal, outlining the steps you took to get from the start to finish. What ‘pathways’ did you use in the past? Can these help you now? For the one or two small goals you identified above, brainstorm pathways. Come up with as many options as you can–even the absurd ones! Enlist the help of a creative friend.
If it feels like the inertia of life is constantly weighing you down, and it seems impossible to get anything done, you might need help with ‘agency thinking’. This is this ability we have to get started and sustain the motivation for carrying out the plans we created to achieve our goals. If you are struggling in this area, start with the basics. Are your fundamental needs being met? Are you getting enough restful sleep? Eating well? Enough sunshine and exercise? Healthy relationships? Focus on whatever is lacking for you. Then, think back to a time when you did achieve your goals. How did that happen? Did you care deeply about the goal? Have enough time to commit to it? More support? Financial resources? Confidence in your abilities? Reflect on the factors that helped you stay motivated towards a goal in the past. Can those help you now? If not, what needs to change (hint: sometimes it’s the goal)? Do you have new resources that you didn’t have before? What are your strengths? For the goals and pathways you’ve identified above, note your level of motivation and confidence to pursue them. What would improve your motivation and confidence?
You can cultivate hope through three things: clear goals, pathways–or options–to reach that goal, and a belief in your abilities to get there. What I like about this three-tiered approach is that it delivers control back to us. Hopelessness is not a personality defect, it’s something we all experience from time to time. But we don’t have to live in that space. With this model, we can look and see what area(s) are the root of our hopelessness and focus on what we can change to bring a sense of hope back into our lives.
If you’re struggling with feelings of hopelessness, or can’t seem to find your way back to hope, let’s talk. Consultations are always free, and sometimes an outside perspective is all that’s needed to help you find your way back.