Cultivating Hope to Boost Your Mental Health Under Stress
Tools from positive psychology to help you overcome stress and adversity.
Posted Dec 31, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages around us, there is a ray of hope on the horizon in the form of new vaccines. Yet, the deaths and suffering are considerable and growing, and the timing and availability of the vaccine are not yet determined. Like most of us, you are probably feeling fatigue, frustration, boredom, and anxiety.
At this time, you might wonder if it will do any good to maintain hope for a better future. Might it be better, perhaps, to just live day-to-day? After all, you have had to tolerate many months of things not getting better and prolonged restriction. In this article, I argue that hope may indeed be a valuable resource in protecting your mental and physical health, even in the face of dire circumstances.
What is hope?
Hope, as defined by Hope Theory, proposed by Professor Rick Snyder, is a psychological attribute; it consists of three components:
- Having goals that you feel invested in, such as having a close and loving family, finding a life partner, having children, or achieving success at your work (Goals)
- Believing that you have the ability to achieve your goals and overcome the obstacles that lie along the way (Agency)
- Finding multiple potential pathways to achieve your goals and actively committing to move forward in their pursuit (Pathways)
This definition describes hope as an active state of mind that involves execution as well as aspiration. Hope, defined this way, involves much more than just wishful thinking or passively wishing that things will get better without doing anything about it. Hope is also different from optimism in that it's more specific and action-oriented, whereas optimism is a more general belief that things will turn out well in the future. Hope is also different from confidence, which is the belief that you can achieve your goals, in that having confidence does not involve creating a specific pathway or planning for obstacles.
What are the benefits of hope?
Research on hope suggests that it is a resource that can be developed with training and practice. Hope predicts improved well-being and happiness and reduced psychological distress, over and above the effects of optimism. Higher hope is consistently related to better outcomes in academics, athletics, physical health, psychological adjustment, and psychotherapy. When hope results in positive outcomes, an upward spiral is created in which good results lead to increased hope, and more hope leads to continued success.
Research on hopeful people shows that they can be realistic in setting their goals based on what is achievable. They can also be flexible in changing strategies when they face roadblocks. They come up with multiple pathways to achieve their goals and so are less likely to be permanently stymied when things don't go as planned.
Hopeful people can also be flexible in changing goals altogether when they don't make progress in a certain area despite considerable effort. In summary, being hopeful means having a realistic, action-oriented approach in which you feel enthusiastic about your goals, willing to work hard to make them come about, and resilient in facing difficulties along the way.
Hope has also been associated with improved pain tolerance. In one study, hopeful people were able to keep their hands submerged in ice water for longer, indicating a greater tolerance for pain. In studies of cancer patients, hope help predicts better well-being and adjustment in populations at different stages, not only those with a positive prognosis.
Is hope still useful when there is no chance of improvement?
One question you may ask is whether hope is still helpful when there's no possibility of things improving, such as when an illness is terminal. It turns out that hopeful people fare better, even when they are dying. Rather than passively hoping for the illness to go away, hopeful people at advanced stages of cancer set limited goals relating to the quality of life or saying goodbye to family members. This active approach to dying contrasts with a more passive approach in which patients just want their lives to be over as quickly as possible and withdraw from others.
What can I do to be more hopeful?
Below are some things you can do to be more hopeful:
Focus on one or a few life areas.
Decide on one or two areas of life that are most meaningful to you, and allocate most of your effort and energy to those areas. This may include healthy living, spiritual pursuit, being a better parent or partner, or contributing to your family and community, among other things. By developing clarity about what is most important and meaningful in your life, you avoid dissipating your energy by trying to do too many things at once.
Set clear, specific, and actionable goals.
Once you have defined an area of high meaning, set very clear and specific goals in that area. For example, if family is important to you, you may set a goal of having a Zoom call with your family members once a week. Goals that are specific and realistic are more likely to be achieved than vague and lofty goals.
Set goals that build on each other.
Set a series of goals that systematically build on each other, versus pursuing a bunch of separate things. For example, if you want to be successful at work, you might set a goal that involves improving your skills, followed by a goal of demonstrating your new skills to colleagues or customers.
Set goals related to things you can control.
Consider whether your goals are realistic and how much of the end result is under your control. It's better to set goals related to things you can control than parts of life that you have no influence over. For example, rather than setting a goal for COVID-19 to be over with, set a goal to wear a mask and socially distance as often as possible so as to best protect yourself from the disease.
Actively use your desired result as a motivator.
Regularly visualize or think about your desired future achievement. This can help you maintain motivation in an ongoing way. For example, if you want to start a regular exercise routine, you could visualize how much better you will feel when you are fitter and stronger and how much you will enjoy your workout then.
Be flexible and plan for roadblocks.
Continue to revisit and re-evaluate your goals. Think about what obstacles you are likely to face and how you might best deal with them. That way, you are less likely to be taken by surprise and severely disappointed when things don't go smoothly for you.
In this mindset, difficulties and obstacles are inevitable, but not impossible or insurmountable. Continue to come up with creative solutions; be flexible in changing course when repeated efforts don't work. Also, be ready to ask for help and mentorship from others who have more experience, wisdom, or expertise.
In summary, being actively hopeful in finding both new goals and new pathways in the face of a changing world can sustain you through prolonged, difficult times. Avoid wishful thinking and unrealistic expectations. Be ready to work hard, believe in yourself, and stay flexible, adaptable, active, and creative. Staying hopeful in this way is the key to thriving in difficult times.
Snyder, C. (2002). Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275. Retrieved January 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1448867
Rand, K. L., & Cheavens, J. S. (2009). Hope theory. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (p. 323–333). Oxford University Press.