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Wishing and Hoping

How Hope Can Sustain You in the New Year

All this week, people are greeting each other with wishes for a happy new year.

While there is a certain rote quality for many as they say it, I also believe that for many of us the greeting reflects one of the most important of positive emotions: Hope.

To come through depression, this is the most useful emotion.

The positive emotion of hope is one that supports us in trouble and buoys us so we can continue to live in the face of discouragement or trouble. You are probably thinking this is nonsense or foolishly optimistic. In fact, it is not foolish optimism. Positive emotions are not an offset to negative ones: They strengthen different circuits in the brain/body that give motivation, energy, thought processes that can be turned to and used instead of staying in the depressed circuits.

Barbara Frederickson has spent many years researching the positive emotions and their value to us. Among the things her research indicates is the reality that positive emotions are long term resources. They are not just a way to survive trouble. They add to the quality of our life, providing joy, interest, wonder and awe. The positive emotions build the strength, and give us the desire, to continue working toward a future, even when we may feel it is hard to do.

I have had the opportunity to talk with several people of late who are faced with significant illness - in some cases, terminal illness. And what has struck me is how these people are not depressed. They are realists who have hope. They know what their situations are, and yet they are imbued with hope: Hope that the new year will bring time with enough health to enjoy family and friends. Hope that they will continue to find joy in their relationships. Hope that pain is still some time away. They may wish for a cure but they are realists: it is not their focus nor their obsession. Their hope is to stay well as long as they can, and in the meantime to really appreciate each moment. I know they have times when fear or sadness or depressed thoughts come up, but the positive emotion of hope helps them to not stay in those dark places.

Hope is not pie-in-the-sky denial of reality. Many people mistake hoping for wishing. Wishing is often unrealistic and does not have a foundation in what is possible. Hope is much more about what is possible under the right circumstances. We cannot always control circumstances, but we can influence them. For example:

  • Are you hoping for a loving relationship? If hope could help you survive disappointment, what would you do to try and develop a love relationship? Would you try harder to meet new people: join a dating service, participate in some new group (e.g., for sports, volunteering, for learning) so you might meet others with your interests.
  • Are you hopeful to have a child? This may require a variety of interventions, some of which are not just physically but emotionally demanding. Can you allow hope to buoy you during the sadness when you realize it is still not happening?
  • Are you hopeful this year will bring improved health for someone you love? Can you spend time with that person focused on offering whatever help they may need, without focusing on what they do not have? (For some, health may be slow to improve or require a lot of effort and that loved one may need encouragement). Your hope can make for a better life now and possibly improve motivation to do the things that will improve their health: get on medication, lose weight, stop drinking, exercise or even work on mental attitude. All of those actions are easier when supported by a legitimate hope that the action will help the quality of life.
  • Are you hopeful that your financial state will improve? I realize there are realistic limitations on this for many, many people. I also know there are people who can do more for themselves if they did not feel so discouraged. Hope that it would make a difference can make it easier to accept help to job search more effectively, apply for food stamps or medical aid even if it is a temporary need. At times it is just getting the willingness to work extra hours or to take a job that is beneath your skill level, hoping the extra money will make a difference. Hope that you can get stable will ease the sense of deprivation if you give up spending on items that you want.
  • Perhaps you are hoping to defeat depression. This is hardest of all because you must remember the distinction between wishing and hoping. It can be very useful for people with depression to get realistic about what they can accomplish or obtain. Hope that something will change may improve motivation to try something new: a lifestyle change, different therapies than previously tried. Hope is what can help to tolerate discouragement when things are slow to change. And often you cannot do it alone. The biggest challenge of depression is how hard it is to find positive emotion and utilize it. For that to occur, you may well need the support of a therapist, a friend or a family member who will keep encouraging you because they have hope on your behalf.

I hope for those of you who suffer depression that you will find the people who want to support you, who will help you find the right path and then walk with you along that path out of depression. May you have a Hopeful New Year.

More from Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.
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