Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Hope: A Way of Thinking

Is hope a feeling or a cognitive process?

I’m very drawn to positive psychology. I like how it aims to show what is going on psychologically for people who are happy, rather than defining happiness, functioning, or normalcy by looking to unhappiness, “dysfunction,” or “abnormality.”

So I was interested to read about the late researcher C.R. “Rick” Snyder, a positive psychologist who offered a way of looking at hope that goes beyond defining hope as a feeling.

I read about Snyder’s work in social work researcher Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. Brown writes about Snyder’s approach to hope, which was to see it as a way of thinking or cognitive process. Brown paraphrases Snyder’s approach, saying hope happens when:

  • We have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go).
  • We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I'm persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again).
  • We believe in ourselves (I can do this!).

For one, I like that Snyder thought about hope as a way of thinking, rather than just as an emotion. That means that hope is something that people can work to develop, that perhaps we can train our minds to be hopeful.

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This approach seemed significant to me when thinking about suicide prevention. Since hopelessess is such a critical factor in suicide risk, working to develop hope may be a step in a process of preventing suicide, at least on an individual level.

People who struggle with suicidal thinking also often struggle to be future-oriented and to feel a sense of agency or empowerment to make a difference that could impact the future.

Snyder’s approach to hope gives the individual power to change his or her outlook, and ideally, influence the way that things go in the future. 

Just to break it down a little further, let’s look at some (very simplified!) ways of thinking that people with suicidal ideation may experience, and contrast them with ways of thinking based in hope.

  • “I can’t do anything right.” (black-and-white thinking) vs. “I’m not doing well in my career, but I’m a great, reliable friend. I’m going to focus on being a good friend and on my relationships with others.” (I know where I want to go)
  • “I don’t have any control over my life.” (external locus of control) “I’m going to see if my friends can help me figure out where I’m going with my career. I’m also going to think about how to use my relationship-building skills for a career change.” (I know how to get there, I'm persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again)
  • “It just feels so hopeless.” (hopelessness) “I know it might take time, but I believe I’ll be successful if I stick with it.” (I can do this!)

These hope re-frames show just how different thinking within a framework of hope can be from getting stuck in thought patterns that don’t take into account nuance, take away control, and limit thinking into the future. They show that hope is more than just a feeling—it's a whole new way of looking at what’s possible.

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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