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New Hope for the Hopeless

Hope as a way of thinking.

Key points

  • Research suggests that maintaining hopeful states can impact outcomes for cancer patients.
  • People exposed to hard circumstances in life may actually set "avoidant type" goals that undermine any possibility of being hopeful.
  • Hope is something that can be taught and is a way of thinking that everyone can tap in to.

I have sat with many patients over the years who have been at points in their life that have left little room for hope in them for a better tomorrow.

' StratfordProductions/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Friends, licensed for use'.
Source: ' StratfordProductions/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Friends, licensed for use'.

But research is beginning to reveal the mediating potential for maintaining “hopeful” states of thinking related to everything from cancer to trauma. Feldman and Corn (2022) state the following from their investigations on cancer patients and hopeful thinking:

Growing evidence demonstrates that hope is associated with a number of psychological variables in individuals with cancer, including depression, distress, coping, symptom burden, and post traumatic growth, and the emerging evidence suggests that hope may actually predict the probability of survival in advanced stages of cancer.

' Jorm S/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Surreal art, licensed for use'.
Source: ' Jorm S/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Surreal art, licensed for use'.

In my life, I must add anecdotally, that I have also witnessed cases where individuals suffering from similar issues, whose primary living disposition remained “hopeful,” were able to actively challenge the progression of their illness, improve their own immune systems’ responsivity, and even move into active remission. These individuals had some common denominators such as goal-setting, focusing on the here and now, avoiding catastrophizing, appreciation of clear diagnostic communication from their doctors, utilizing social anchors around them (family, friends, and church), and regulating their physical world through sleep, healthy eating, and daily meaning-making. To this end, from the frame of research conducted by Satici et al., (2022), their results revealed that "hope" is directly correlated to psychological health, and that hopeful individuals had higher levels of psychological well-being. But this, however, is only the beginning.

Champions of hope

Recently, I had the chance to interview Dr. Chan Hellman, a professor from the University of Oklahoma and founding Director of the Hope Research Center. He has been featured as part of TedX and has a current book on the subject of hope called Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life. Below is an excerpt from that interview.

How would you define hopelessness, Dr. Hellman?

Dr. Chan Hellman: “I believe it is more closely aligned with apathy, from the perspective of "giving up."

What does the diametric of "hope" look like when compared to hopelessness?

Dr. Chan Hellman: Hope is more than wishing, and is really centered on the belief that tomorrow will be better than today, and that we will have a role to play in that future pursuit. It’s a cognitive process, a mindset, that is more than a feeling or emotion.

How do you see hopelessness play out in someone's life?

Dr. Chan Hellman: An interesting aspect of this research is what we have seen take place when people are exposed to adversity and stress, and that is, that they are more likely to set avoidant type goals, or goals of outcomes that simply reinforce their current state, which may sound counterintuitive to getting better, but is really part of the insidious nature of living in hopelessness. However, once we are able to nurture and restore hope, this changes, and we may begin to see a transition to more of an "achievement" mindset in those same people.

I’m wondering if there is a useful metaphor from your work on hope that might resonate with others?

Dr. Chan Hellman: I’ve developed a set of what I call "guiding principles" around hope, and I think a few of those might address this particular question well. One is the idea that "imagination" is the instrument of hope. This is the ability to "imagine the future," which I borrowed from the work in self-psychology literature, and how we might begin to see how this also affects intentionality and motivation. Another one is the idea that “hope begets hope.” This is the idea that once we experience a bit of success toward our goals, it also enhances our willpower and inherent pathways to thinking. And then finally, the last one is that hope is a "social gift," because hope tends to flourish in relationship with others and the connections we maintain rather than occurring in isolation.

Do you think that hope is an "innate" potential we possess?

Dr. Chan Hellman: I believe that hope is something that can actually be taught, and additionally, it is also malleable, as research supports these ideas. In our publications around trauma and adversity where things like insecure attachments, shame, rumination, and anxiety flourish, we also see the capacity of such issues to diminish hope in people. And as it turns out, therapy has gotten really good at helping us to navigate through those tough spaces and restore hope.

What are some ways that a person can start to tap into hope?

Dr. Chan Hellman: We should first recognize that setting goals is the cornerstone of hope, most especially, focusing on short-term, specific goals, and actually thinking of very specific domains where we might implement such goals. We can ask questions to help realize those domains such as: What might be a small goal I could set with my family this week? What would be a goal I could set in my work? What would be a goal I would set for my leisure time? What would be a goal I could set for my health? What we found is that short-term specific goals are a stronger promoter of hope over time than longer-term envisioned goals.

Then, once we establish a short-term goal, I think it’s important to take a moment and simply "imagine" what success is going to look like within that specific goal we have set. We might actively imagine that specific picture of goal attainment, and who exactly is going to benefit from it, and who is going to be there to maybe celebrate it with us.

Around goals, we should also consider the strategies or "pathways" that we will use to attain each of those small short-term goals. For instance, if my goal is to get healthy, I might sit down and look at the pathway to that goal, which might include first joining a gym, maybe adding a trainer, or simply starting to run or exercise, maybe modifying my diet. I think listing these elements is important, as well as understanding that every aspect will have pros and cons attached, and figuring out which is the most viable pathway for yourself.

And then finally, really leaning into the idea that hope is a "social gift." This might mean identifying somebody you can connect with, someone who has a shared experience or interest you can talk to, and maybe even pursuing the goal together.

These are simple "pathways" that connect one success to the next. Each step that is taken and achieved always helps bring the bigger goal into focus.

'Titze Imaging/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Hope, licensed for use'.
Source: 'Titze Imaging/Adobe Photo Stock', 'Hope, licensed for use'.

Hope is not an ethereal notion, but rather, a transformative agent and a functional way of thinking that can have great prospects for our life. And as Dr. Hellman teaches, hope begins with one small step.

You can read Part 1 of this series here.


Feldman, David B., and Benjamin W. Corn. “Hope and Cancer.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 49, no. 101506, Nov. 2022, p. 101506, 10.1016/j.copsyc.2022.101506. Accessed 28 Nov. 2022.

Satici, Seydi Ahmet, and Sinan Okur. “Investigating the Link between Psychological Maltreatment, Shyness, Hope, and Wellbeing.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 196, Oct. 2022, p. 111764, 10.1016/j.paid.2022.111764. Accessed 1 Aug. 2022.