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Thinking Habits of Highly Hopeful People

People are losing hope faster than at any time in history—except this group.

Key points

  • People who are highly hopeful think differently in a way that is teachable.
  • People with greater measures of hope live longer and healthier.
  • Hope is the only positive emotion that requires negativity or uncertainty to be activated.

In the preamble to its constitution, the World Health Organization identifies this core principle: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Yet 80 percent of people with a depression relapse. With all of the medicines, psychotherapies, vitamins, alternative therapies, and things you’ve heard about yoga and exercise ー despite everything we’ve thrown at it ー 80% of people who get depressed get depressed again. If we were a business that made flashlights, and 80% of them failed to light up, we wouldn’t be in business very long, would we?

This idea ー that the absence of disease or infirmity is not the truth, only or full criteria for health ー has been the foundational shift in positive psychology over the last 20 years. Science has moved from looking at what's wrong to focusing on what's strong. By focusing on the 20%, we learn how the strong survive and thrive. For too long, psychology has looked at the 80%, trying to make people not depressed. But not being depressed isn’t the same as being happy. What are the 20% doing? More importantly, can we learn how to do it?

This was the subject of my research in writing Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. This new approach helps empower people to make changes by assisting them to experience more positive emotions while learning to reduce the negative ones simultaneously. Increasing well-being through positivity might seem like an ineffective way of reducing negativity, yet studies repeatedly show that it may be the most effective method worldwide. Focusing on increasing our positive emotions while using our strengths is emerging as the most successful and efficient tool to reduce our experience of stress, worry, and anxiety. This is a radically different approach to well-being than those where symptom reduction is only half the job and specific interventions to improve positivity are the other half. We have learned that decreasing negativity without increasing positivity is a losing battle.

We know this because negative and positive thoughts are typically unbalanced when under stress and worry. Imagine those negative thoughts are like pebbles, and positive thoughts are like feathers. We have survived as a species because we've learned how to worry — so there is something scientists call a negativity bias. We are drawn to fear what might hurt us in some way. Over time, we have emphasized worry, and positive emotions have become little more than mere frivolities. We don't linger on them. Typically, we go back to worrying about the next thing on our list. The question is: Can the feathers ever balance out the scale? Can they tip it in the direction of positivity? The short answer is yes — but initially, you'll need a lot of feathers.

Medicine and traditional therapy approaches knocked the negative thoughts off the seesaw and kept the pebbles from piling on 一 but they do nothing to add to the feathers. We might indeed come back into balance for a while, but if we don't add feathers to the other side ー if we do not add positive emotions into the equation by using our strengths ー even a grain of sand will send the balance in the other direction of anxiety. We relapse because there isn't anything positive being added to the feather's side.

This is to say that positive psychology can offer the other half of the equation. Designed to work with medical and traditional therapeutic approaches, adding positivity into our life is an opportunity to add the findings of positive psychology to the toolbox — not to try and replace it.

When a pebble gets tossed on our scale, it is essential to become more empowered to remove it — and learn how to add more positivity. This approach is very dynamic because it keeps the pebbles from accumulating while looking for and learning how to gather more feathers. Once you know how to balance the scale by removing negative thoughts, you keep them at bay by adding more positivity. In other words, this approach teaches you how to hope. That was the secret behind the 20 percent that didn’t relapse: They continually added positive emotions and experiences to their life to counterbalance the negativity. By learning to regularly remove the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs that were getting them depressed and adding those that would increase positivity, they had learned how to remain hopeful.

Learned Hopefulness

As it turns out, people who are more hopeful see the world in a different way. In studying what makes people have high hope or low hope, I’ve found that the high hope people have seven thinking habits about how they are going to perceive the world.

Dan Tomasulo
Differences between high-hope and low-hope thinking
Source: Dan Tomasulo

Higher hope decisions are teachable. With learned hopefulness, you can sustainably have less anxiety and depression, greater resilience, less negativity, and more joy just like the high hope people. The key is understanding exactly what hope is, and making that realization work for you.

Hope is the only positive emotion that requires activation of negativity or uncertainty. Without bleakness, the spark for hope isn’t ignited. We have no need for hope without sorrow. Low hope people fail to realize that the negativity or uncertainty is a call to action — one that can serve to change their perception about a situation. Their perception of the circumstance is fixed, causing them to repeatedly focus on the negative, not challenging themselves, and then isolating. In contrast, high hope people know that hope is the regulation of perception toward believing in control of the future. They believe a positive future outcome is possible, combined with a desire for that outcome. They search out ways to cultivate positive feelings while entertaining possibilities. They cherish relationships and will seek support in achieving their goals. High hope people stand ready for life's challenges, and the payoff comes from research that shows they will live a longer, healthier, and happier life.

If you want to begin living more like high hope people, start by picking one of the seven decisions that you’d like to work on, then challenge yourself to look for the possibilities within these situations that you once thought of as fixed and unchangeable. Ask yourself questions that help you find and focus on what can happen rather than what can’t. If you don’t have a goal to challenge yourself to strive for, you might want to set one and work toward it this week. If you are prone to looking at the negative, take a week to focus on finding the beauty around you, then acknowledge it. It may seem like a small thing to do to flip your mood, but it works and is something you’ll get better at. I know because it worked for me when I was going through a tough time, and the science behind it says it will work for you.

A version of this post also appears on Infijoy.


Levy, H. C., O’Bryan, E. M., & Tolin, D. F. (2021). A meta-analysis of relapse rates in cognitive- behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 102407.

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S. L. Burcusa and W. G. Iacono, “Risk for Recurrence in Depression,” Clinical Psychology Review 27 (8) (2007): 959–985

Sharmila, K. (2020). Role of Happiness in Health of Elderly. Indian Journal of Gerontology, 34(4).

Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. New Harbinger Publications.