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Hope Matters

Extensive research explains how hope and anxiety interact.

Srini Pillay
The hope of a new day
Source: Srini Pillay

In a world that prides itself on being "evidence-based," hope gets a bad rap. Many people scoff at the mere idea of it. In the company of such cynical people, you might hear phrases such as, "...there is no reason to believe," or "...if wishes were horses, beggars would ride". Yet, in the words of Alexander Pope, "hope springs eternal in the human breast."

What are we to do, given the apparent conflict between hope and reason? Is it possible that we might even have reason to hope? And should we?

Hope and the brain: In 2017, postdoctoral researcher Song Wang and his colleagues investigated how hope impacts the brains of 231 high school students. They measured hope using a scale that contained items such as: "I can think of many ways to get out of a jam," and "Even when others get discouraged, I know I can find a way to solve the problem."

They found that students who had high hopes also had brains that differed from those who had lower hopes. Specifically, hope appeared to help them (and not those with lower hope) tap into brain regions that typically move us toward our goals. And hope changed their brains so that they were protected against anxiety. In their study, they were able to conclude that hope may help us make better decisions when it takes us out of the anxious brain.

What the presence of hope does: Many other leading researchers have explained that hope protects us against uncertainty and anxiety, and that hope is what helps us explore the world too. Hope is also at the core of the growth mindset, and even a single conversation about the possibility of change can reduce anxiety and stress in youth.

What the absence of hope does: In an age where anxiety is double the average rate in the millennial and Gen Z population (18-34 years old), and where suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst those aged 10-34 years old, hope could be instrumental in protecting our youth. Without hope, anxiety and suicide will rise.

Implications of hope for society: The challenge for most people is that they require a reason to hope before they reduce their anxiety. Yet, hope may be a motivational state that is necessary to prevent anxiety and encourage the constructive exploration of issues. This may be reason enough.

While there are real challenges that concern our youth, with the Gen Z and millennial population being twice as concerned about gun violence as Baby Boomers, and where eco-anxiety as a result of climate change is rife, politicians and the media would be well advised to integrate hope with their messages if they care about youth mental health.

Even if people have differences in their beliefs, they will benefit from hoping and acting into their concerns. Parents, rather than catastrophizing the state of the world, should recognize that hopelessness is a recognized predictor of suicide. While it is important to acknowledge the challenges in the world, transferring adult anxiety onto youth needs to be moderated by hope.

Based on these considerations, I believe that as a society, we need to stand together against anxiety and suicide. While it may not be instinctive for people in many societies to focus on their coherence and similarities, a sense of coherence can instill hope.

The challenge that we face is to remain coherent despite differences of opinion. We need to stop making decisions from anxiety-ridden brains and to use hope as the central linchpin in rehabilitating our approach to the challenges that we face. Those who argue that there is no reason to hope are ignoring the fact that hope reduces anxiety and stress, and it helps us make decisions that will at least not be knee-jerk responses that perpetuate the reactivity and impulsivity that we see in society today.

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