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The Psychology of Hope

Rebuilding in the face of ongoing adversity.

Key points

  • Linked to optimism, hope is an attitude or outlook that good things will happen and one's wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled.
  • Ongoing adversity during the pandemic has eroded many people's sense of hope.
  • Hope helps us stay focused on future goals and can help us adapt to change and better manage adversity.

Hope may be difficult to measure, but one thing is clear: the pandemic has had a significant toll on many people’s sense of hope. Still, what is hope? How does it affect our well-being? And how do we foster hope in the face of ongoing adversity?

What is hope?

The American Psychological Association defines hope as “the expectation that one will have positive experiences or that a potentially threatening or negative situation will not materialize or will ultimately result in a favorable state of affairs.” Hope is also linked to optimism—the attitude or outlook that good things will happen and one’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled. In this sense, hope is essential to setting and ultimately achieving goals.

How does hope support social, mental, and physical well-being?

The impact of hope on our social, mental, and physical well-being is widely documented. Positively correlated with higher satisfaction rates, the consensus is that hope serves as a buffer against negative and stressful life events. But a survey of existing research on hope suggests that it serves as more than a buffer.

Locating hope as a type of “psychological capital,” the authors of a 2010 study found that individuals high in hope demonstrate better athletic, academic, occupational, and health outcomes. But why do hopeful individuals not simply feel better but seem to have measurably higher levels of achievement and even report better health?

One possible explanation is that hopeful individuals are more likely to take care of their careers and health because they are forward-looking (i.e., because they are setting and actively pursuing goals). In other words, hopeful individuals are generally more successful and healthier because they are already proactive about their professional, financial, and physical wellness.

Yet, there are also a host of studies that have found that hope may be an especially important factor when individuals are diagnosed with a serious illness. In a 2008 study of multiple sclerosis patients, for example, Hart et al. found that hope led to positive physical health outcomes because hopeful patients appeared more likely to seek opportunities to alter the course of the disease. Similarly, a 2011 study by Flett et al. found that hopeful patients were more adaptive and, hence, better equipped to deal with the challenges of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. On this basis, it is possible that hope isn’t just a buffer against negative experiences but also something that can help us adapt, even when everything we’ve taken for granted about our lives has been disrupted.

How can leaders help build hopeful teams and organizations?

If you’ve been leading an organization over the past two years, you’ve likely already asked yourself how you can cultivate hope across your organization. After all, hope doesn’t just make for a stronger workplace culture but can also reduce attrition rates.

There is no single formula, but there are things you can do to help cultivate hope, even in the face of the immense challenges we continue to face as individuals and organizations on a daily basis.

  • Set clear goals: Be clear, crisp, and focused when it comes to goals. Also, monitor the fine line between what is aspirational and achievable. To get started, set goals and then break each goal down into actionable steps. The more you break down each goal into easily achievable steps, the more likely it is that your team will achieve even the most aspirational goals. Remember that hope is also cumulative. The more steps your team members complete, the more hopeful they will become.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset: Help your team members embrace the idea that they can keep growing, even in the face of adversity.
  • Align goals with values: When goals are highly relevant (important to oneself, one’s work, one’s family, or one’s community), it is easier to drive change.
  • Take perspective on a regular basis: Help your team take perspective at regular intervals. Being able to see one’s progress is a great way to foster hope for the future.

The future of hope

As we look ahead, there is reason to believe that the fallout of the pandemic will likely continue to shape our lives and work for some time. Hope is being subject to new strains and stresses, but this is also why it is more important now than ever. Looking forward, leaders will need to be more proactive about fostering hope on their teams and across their organizations.

LinkedIn and Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Flett, G. L., Baricza, C., Gupta, A., Hewitt, P. L., & Endler, N. S. (2011). Perfectionism, psychosocial impact and coping with irritable bowel disease: A study of patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Journal of Health Psychology, 16(4), 561–571.

Hart, Kenneth E; Sasso, Thomas. Canadian Psychology; Ottawa Vol. 52, Iss. 2, (May 2011): 82-92.

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