Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Health Benefits of Hope

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel can be very good for you.

Key points

  • Hope may benefit physical health by boosting immune function and decreasing pain, research suggests.
  • Hope is linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression, and it may help protect against those conditions.
  • Being hopeful does not mean forcing yourself to be positive. Instead, it involves acknowledging a full, realistic picture of the world.

As the world climbs out of one of the most difficult years in modern memory, there are signs of better things ahead. In the Northern hemisphere, spring is arriving, with longer periods of sunlight, flowers in bloom, and the increased ability to gather outside. Effective vaccines are being administered in greater numbers every day, which means that people's professional, personal and family lives may soon be closer to resembling "normal" than they have in more than a year.

While getting back to this so-called normal can be a disruption in and of itself, it's also a reason for hope: a psychological construct that, as it turns out, is good for both your emotional and physical health.

While many people may assume that something like hope is a wishy-washy, diffuse idea that is hard to quantify, it can actually be measured in both trait forms (the typical level of optimistic thinking that is part of your personality) and state forms (the amount of hope that you have in any given moment within your mood.) Both have been shown to be beneficial across a wide range of areas of functioning.

While boosting your hope is not the same thing as going into denial or avoiding negative emotions (more on that in a moment!), it's a surefire way to make your day a little brighter—and after the year we've had, that may feel like a long time in coming. Here are some reasons to embrace it.

Hope Improves Your Physical Health

Many studies have shown a wide range of physical health benefits of increased hope, including a higher-functioning immune system, better prognosis in chronic illness, and decreased sensations of pain.

This likely has to do with several components of hope that are so potent. One is that when we have hope, we are more likely to think of a specific pathway of how to move forward in the ways that will bring us a sense of agency: we feel less helpless and less uncertain about the future (and helplessness and uncertainty both increase our stress, in ways that can be detrimental to our health over time.) Increased hope also gives us a buffer in order to sustain some setbacks: it can help with our resilience when there are bumps in the road, helping us have the energy to continue on the path that we are on before giving up.

Hope Improves Your Emotional Health

Higher hope is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression. Of course, this isn't a surprise, as hopelessness itself can be a symptom of depression, so it stands to reason that hope and depression would be negatively correlated.

But it also may well be true that hope helps protect against depression in the first place. By having a more optimistic outlook, you are better able to avoid the all-or-none thinking that keeps you in the mental rut of believing that when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong—or that things will never get better. Hope also protects against anxiety by helping you understand that threats can be managed, and that you can eventually gain autonomy even in the scariest of situations.

Hope Helps You Choose Healthier Behaviors

Hope also may very well motivate us to choose better behaviors, creating a cyclical pattern that keeps perpetuating itself. You may know someone who started taking better care of their physical health once they had grandchildren they wanted to live a long time for, or someone who finally got the job they wanted and then decided to clean up other areas of their life to go along with it. When we feel like there are the possibilities of good things ahead, we tend to strengthen those possibilities by nudging ourselves along into healthier behaviors.

Think about what a new post-Covid life may mean to you. Might it activate you to make some changes and get out of the ruts that may have trapped you when you were under lockdown, with your daily life so constricted?

Hope Is Not Being Unrealistically Positive

As much as I am a believer in the power of hope, I have also written extensively about the damage we do when we believe we should simply "think positive." To be clear, none of this discussion on hope should imply that we should flee from negative thoughts or emotions, or we should force ourselves to see only the bright side. Those techniques typically fail to make us feel any better, and even worse, they often create added stress of feeling bad about our bad feelings, or they make us flee to self-destructive behaviors in order to avoid feeling those emotions that we've deemed so scary. This also denies us the practice of learning to manage those emotions!

So, look for hope in a realistic way, and choose to lean in to it—but let it be part of the larger whole. You need not avoid the grief and distress that go along with the big picture. In fact, hope—or light—can be that much more exquisite and meaningful when it comes with full acknowledgment that darkness exists, too.

In the words of the late Leonard Cohen, in his song Anthem, "Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." Let hope in—and let it be real as you lean fully in to what life may bring.

More from Psychology Today

More from Andrea Bonior Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today