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How to Hope When Things Are Hard

Hope is a powerful mindset and coping tool.

Source: drmariabaratta
Source: drmariabaratta

How to deal with life’s hard stuff is something that has fueled my work as a therapist for decades. We all know plenty of sad stories about horrible or unfair things that happen to good people, including ourselves. Adversities happen, but how you respond makes all the difference. Hope helps when it comes to coping with the things that keep us awake at night, the things that make us worry, the uncertainties and problems in our lives. Experience and research show that hope is a powerful mindset and coping tool.

To be hopeful is to believe that things will be okay. That's a different thing altogether from optimism. The optimistic view of the world is that all is well—the glass is half full. The problem is that when bad things do happen, everything is actually not well at that moment. On the other hand, the pessimistic view of the world—the glass is half empty, is also faulty. With a pessimistic mindset, when good things do happen (and they do happen often!) there is the risk of missing out and not experiencing the good stuff. If the glass is half empty, it is also half full.

The more adaptive and successful mindset is hopefulness. With hope, the powerful factor is one's desire fueled by conviction of outcome—you don’t have to know for sure, but you need to believe that a good outcome can happen. Hope as a mindset propels you toward the best possible outcome without working against you, like pessimism or optimism, because hope has a reason to expect a good outcome, not just a desire for one.

Why is it that hope is so powerful? It is precisely the fact that hope is based on past experiences of good outcomes. We all have had good things happen to us throughout our lives, and that leads us to believe that more good outcomes are possible. Hopefulness focuses on the fact that we all have a personal history of good things that have happened, even when we are reticent to admit or remember that when we’re going through bad times. Our own personal history enables us to build on the fact that nothing stays the same, bad times do pass, and good things do happen.

For people with a faith tradition, hope is familiar and powerful since belief in a higher power presupposes that we humans are part of a bigger picture, and amazingly good things do happen. In a Harvard Medical School article, "Hope: why it matters," Adam Stern, M.D., writes that "Among young adults with chronic illnesses, greater degrees of hope are associated with improved coping, well-being, and engagement in healthy behaviors."

So, how do you acquire the mindset of having hope when things are bad? And how do you develop the coping tool of hopefulness? We humans have memory. Here’s where hope comes in. We know and remember that good things have happened before. Even if we don't feel it at the moment, we cannot deny that it is possible to feel differently based on past experience. Things always change, albeit slowly, but nothing stays the same. Because of that, we can believe that good things will happen again.

In addition, we humans are affected by mood, which tempers our reactions to things. How we feel about a situation can change in spite of ourselves. And if mood is stuck in negativity and sadness, there are things that can help—therapy, medication, exercise, and activities that release endorphins, to name a few. I would encourage work with a therapist as an effective step in addressing mood.

Reinforcing your ability to engage in a hopeful mindset is your biggest asset in terms of coping well with adversities in your life. The belief that you will get past your current problem based on having gotten through the hard stuff in your life is the foundation of hope. You actually know that good things have happened before and that darkness precedes the light of sunrise. You can hope for the best. It's happened before and will happen again.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Graham, (2023) "The New Science of Hope-Economists are beginning to understand how aspiration shapes life outcomes. The Atlantic

Stern, MD, (2021) "Hope:Why it matters" Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School

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