Sustaining Well-being in the Absence of Hope

Research shows the intersection of faith, well-being, and hope during crisis

Posted Jan 30, 2021

This pandemic has been a constant source of change, loss, and isolation. How do we find meaning and hope when all hope seems to be lost? In this interview, Victor Counted, Ph.D., and Richard Cowden, Ph.D., demonstrate how we can cultivate hope in the midst of the pandemic.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Victor Counted: Personally, I have always had an interest in studying the intersection of hope and well-being. This is partly because of my Christian beliefs and emphasis on hope in the bible. The breakthrough for pursuing this research interest came when I connected with my colleague Richard Cowden, who had access to relevant data that was collected during COVID-19 in South Africa and Colombia. We decided to collaborate on this paper to highlight the potential for hope to support well-being in vulnerable contexts. Besides this, we have always been interested in research that advances human flourishing and quality of life. Cultivating hope is one of the ways we can flourish and thrive in the face of adversity.   

JA: What was the focus of your study?

VC and RC: We wanted to identify potential factors that might help people sustain well-being during a time when many countries had implemented stringent stay-at-home orders to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Data were collected through the support of colleagues in South Africa and Colombia. We noticed that little research had covered concepts related to well-being among people living in low-resourced countries, especially in places where people often lack access to resources that are more widely available in developed countries. This led us to examine data on hope, religious coping, and well-being in samples of Colombians (N = 1172) and South Africans (N = 451), in the process exploring how people living in these contexts might be sustaining their well-being during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

VC and RC: What we found was interesting. We saw a positive association between hope and well-being in both samples, and this association was moderated by religious coping. Well-being was highest when levels of hope were high, irrespective of people’s faith experiences. However, when hope was low, well-being was higher when participants had higher levels of positive religious coping (Colombia) and lower levels of negative religious coping (South Africa). This shows that mobilization of spiritual/religious resources could contribute to the way that people in vulnerable contexts sustain their well-being, especially when hope is low.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

VC and RC: We did expect some of these results that were observed, such as the positive associations found between hope and well-being. Those findings are consistent with a wealth of research in the field of positive psychology. What is new and interesting in our studies is how religious coping might help (or hurt) how people deal with and recover from the toll of a public health crisis, particularly in the absence of hope. Connections between religion/spirituality and positive psychology could have important implications for how mental health professionals support clients during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19? 

VC and RC: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to numerous stressors and obstacles, many of which were unexpected. In the midst of those difficulties, finding pathways to continue making progress towards our goals and taking steps towards using those avenues that are available to us could give us the momentum we need to sustain well-being. The public health crisis has also brought to the foreground our human limitations and our finitude as mortal beings. That can prompt us to anchor ourselves to something greater. Turning to the sacred could lead us to resources that provide the strength needed to deal with challenges that push us beyond the limits of our worldly resources.

JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic? 

VC and RC: Helping others amidst this pandemic using religious resources and initiating activities that inspire hope would require a bit of compassion and education. We can help others find hope by giving them motivation to find pathways to desired goals. We can also direct others to religious/spiritual resources by praying with them, asking them to attend an online service, or being a sounding board to work through their religious/spiritual struggles in a time of crisis. However, there is a need to educate ourselves on how to address religious/spiritual issues. Although resources are emerging that provide guidance, it is important that healthcare professionals and faith leaders receive training on how religion/spirituality might influence the way that people deal with problems.

JA: What are you currently working on?

VC and RC: We have been working on a number of research projects that address urgent questions that help us to better understand the effect of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Many of these efforts centre on the role of religion/spirituality in supporting well-being and promoting outcomes of resilience in the face of challenges caused by the public health crisis. We also have a book coming out later in the year through Springer International, which addresses some pandemic-related issues that could have important implications for post-pandemic recovery of society.

Victor Counted, used with permission
Source: Victor Counted, used with permission

Victor A. Counted, Ph.D., is a social and behavioural scientist and interdisciplinary researcher whose main research fuses psychology, religion, and health. He is a research fellow of the School of Psychology at Western Sydney University and specializes in applied health research, social, positive, and environmental psychology, and the psychology of religion/spirituality. Counted writes and speaks on various aspects of psychosocial processes and human-environment interactions that shape well-being, resilience, and human behaviour. 

Richard Cowden, used with permission
Source: Richard Cowden, used with permission

Richard G. Cowden, Ph.D., is a social-personality psychologist and Research Associate for the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. He is broadly interested in intersections between cultural-contextual dynamics and psychosocial processes that shape adaptive functioning, personal growth, and well-being. Much of his research agenda focuses on character strengths and positive adjustment, especially the implications of forgiveness for health and well-being in diverse cultures and contexts.

References

Counted, V., Pargament, K.I., Bachera, A.O., Joynt, S., & Cowden, R.G. (in press). Hope and Well-being in Vulnerable Contexts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Does religious coping matter? The Journal of Positive Psychology https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1832247