How to Be Hopeful

In my experience volunteering for IMAlive, one common thread that connects people who reach out for help is an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. It’s this hopeless feeling that there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to change things and that often pushes people to think about killing themselves. But what actually is hope and is there anything we can do to become more or less hopeful? These are questions that Charles Snyder addresses in his paper, “Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind”. By looking into his discussion of these questions, hopefully we will be able to better utilize hope and find the hopefulness we are missing. 

         So, let’s start with what it means to be hopeful. Traditionally, hope has been lumped in with other emotions and it has been thought of as something that is felt in the same way you can feel happy or sad. This way of thinking about hope plays into the idea that there is nothing to be done if you feel hopeless, as it’s something that you passively feel as opposed to something you actively have control over. However, people, like Dr. Snyder, are starting to look at hope differently. Instead of being an emotion, hope can be thought of as a way of thinking. This results in hope being something active, something you can choose to think. If this way of categorizing hope is right, you can also choose to hope, even in the face of hopelessness.

         But what does it actually mean for hope to be a way of thinking? On this view, hope breaks down into three things. You have your end goals, you have pathway ways to get there, and you have agency. The difference between people who have lots of hope (high-hopers) and those who don’t (low-hopers) can be seen in the way high versus low hopers utilize these three aspects of hope. For example, high-hopers tend to set SMART goals. These are goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (to learn more about S.M.A.R.T. goals you can go to ). They also produce multiple possible pathways to reach these goals and are able to motivate themselves. While on the other hand, low-hopers tend to have vague goals with few pathways and they aren’t able to motivate themselves to follow through with their plans. Under this view of hope, even people (myself included) who say they feel hopeless are still in fact hoping. They still have a goal in mind, there is still a pathway (even if it’s wishing things would just magically change) and there is still a degree of agency (but it happens to be negative in that they don’t believe they can do much of anything). Additionally, they don’t have much hope because less time is spent hoping. The process of coming up with and evaluating goals, including multiple pathways, along with time spent positively motivating oneself is all time spent hoping and since low-hopers aren’t doing this, they are spending less time hoping than high-hopers are.

         This is all well and good, but what is preventing us from saying some people can naturally do this hop- thinking process better than others and ending right back in a situation where low-hopers still feel like they have no control over the situations they are in? The key lies in the idea that hoping is a type of thinking. The way we think and the pathways we use to reach conclusions is something that is learned! 

As children, we build connections and form habits that help us make quick decisions without having to put a lot of thought into what’s going on around us. For hope, we have each learned a way of hoping and we automatically hope in that way. Since hope is a type of thinking, and since thinking is learned, hope is also learned meaning we can break those habits and re-learn different ways to hope.

         Of course, this is easier said than done. Unlearning and rebuilding new pathways takes a lot of time, energy, and focus. Despite this though, it is possible. Something to keep in mind is that while they are related to each other, the three aspects of hoping are also separate. While trying to tackle all three at once would be a lot of work, being able to focus on just one aspect at a time can make the task easier.

         For example, if you tend to make vague goals, you can aim to work on making SMART goals instead. Taking time to reflect on your goals and then think about what you really want in a more specific way could be one way to do this. The cool thing about this is since all three aspects of hoping are connected, working on changing your attitude towards one aspect can make it easier to change how you relate to the others. Having a SMART goal and taking more time to think about your goals can make it easier to think of the different steps or paths you can take to get there. Additionally, having multiple ideas about how you can achieve your goal can help you to be more flexible and still feel in control if something ends up preventing the first path you choose from working.

         This does raise another question though: would it really be good for us to rewire ourselves to be more hopeful all the time? Or could this lead us to delusions about our abilities and supply us with too much false hope? These are important questions, especially when thinking about people with depression. Alongside these feelings of hopelessness, another common theme seen in people considering dying by suicide is the thought that they don’t deserve better. For them, the lack of hope could be something they think is just them being realistic. They are stuck seeing the good things in this world as something they aren’t good enough to get and to hope for them would be foolish because of this. Positive thinking and self-affirmations can then seem like a waste of time, something other people tell them they should do while they truly believe it’s all just lies for them.

         Despite this common stream of thought, as Dr. Synder discusses in his paper, studies have shown it to not be true. In fact, people who are low-hopers tend to distort reality more than the high-hopers. There is evidence that high-hopers are able to adjust their expectations and edit their plans and goals, even as things unfold. The process of coming up with more detailed goals and thinking of the different ways those goals can be achieved actually puts high-hopers more in touch with the reality of what they are looking to do. Moreover, just because someone has a lot of hope doesn’t mean they are ignoring signs of failure but rather that they take those signs into consideration and pick the best path forward for them at the time, which can even mean giving up on the goal they are hoping for, if that’s what’s needed. Since this way of viewing hope involves an entire thought process, it’s not just that people are feeling good about something happening for no reason, rather having more hope puts you in a position to better evaluate what you can actually do to help yourself reach your goals.

         Feeling hopeless can be extremely debilitating, and viewing hope as an emotion or as something that some people just have, can add to the feeling that there is nothing you can do to make your situation better. However, this is not true. You can have control over whether or not you feel hopeful, and while it will take time to build new habits, it is still possible.

         If you want to learn more about the psychology behind this view of hope you can read Snyder’s work here:Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249–275.

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