If you “only advance confidently in the direction of your dreams,” you will “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Thoreau wrote in Walden (2004, p. 256). Advancing toward their dreams of fitness, many people begin the new year resolving to exercise. In January, our gym is crowded with new members, eagerly using the equipment, but most of them disappear, giving up after just a few weeks.  

Some people don’t set goals or New Year’s resolutions because they’re afraid to hope. Well-meaning families and friends tell them, “Don’t get your hopes up,” for that new job, new relationship, or new level of fitness. “You’ll only be disappointed.”

But research in positive psychology has shown that hope does work. Setting goals gives us greater vitality, makes us thrive. As my colleagues Dave Feldman and Max Kubota explain in their recent article, people with goals are happier and healthier, with “greater positive affect, lower depression, lower anxiety, and higher self-esteem.” College students who set goals have better grades, higher graduation rates, and lower depression and anxiety along with a greater sense of purpose in life 2012, p. 52).

C. R. Snyder (1994), founder of Hope Psychology, found that hope involves three factors: Goals, Agency, and Pathways.

  • Goals—goals should be meaningful--your own, not someone else’s “shoulds.” They should  be measurable (not just “lose weight” but specific: “lose 15 pounds”) and manageable, goals you believe are possible (not “increase my income by a million dollars this year”-- unless you believe this is possible).
  • Agency—or motivation is the energy that propels you toward your goals. You can increase your agency by writing down your goals, surrounding yourself with positive people, and using positive self-talk (" I can do this)
  • Pathways—are subgoals or steps toward your goals. Instead of taking a flying leap into your imagined future, take small, progressive steps. If you’re beginning a new exercise program, start with short times and distances—walking around the block each day, then working up to longer times and distances. Hopeful people prepare for roadblocks with a back-up plan, thinking of what they’ll do if their initial plan is blocked. (If you’ve planned to jog around your neighborhood and it’s pouring rain, what can you do instead? Use a treadmill at the gym? Jog around an indoor mall? Something else?) If you’re prepared for a roadblock, you can keep moving forward.

Studies have shown that you can build increase your goal achievement by visualizing yourself taking these steps, achieving your subgoals, using backup plans, and reaching your goal (Feldman & Dreher, 2012).

So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late to begin--setting a goal you can believe in and taking those steps to get there.


You can find more information on hope in:

Feldman, D. B. & Kubota, M. M. (2012). Hope. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). Religion, spirituality, and positive psychology (pp. 49-61), Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. New York, NY: Free Press.

See also

Feldman, D. B. & Dreher, D. E. (2012). Can hope be changed in 90 minutes? Testing the efficacy of a single-session goal-pursuit intervention for college students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13, 45-759.

Thoreau, H. D. (2004). Walden. New York, NY: Signet.

Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book, about living with greater power and purpose, is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Follow Diane on Twitter: Diane Dreher (@dianedreher) on Twitter

Join Diane on Facebook: Diane Dreher | Facebook

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