Hope Keeps Us Going, But We Have to Get Ourselves There

Having a hopeful mindset and taking action are keys to better days ahead.

Posted Jan 21, 2021

Referencing the many firsts of his Inauguration Day, President Joe R. Biden, Jr. called it a “day of history and hope.” His soothing words and inspiring vision of brighter days ahead for the United States were a welcome break from the darkness and discord that have threatened to tear apart the country and rudely end the great American experiment in multicultural democracy.

It has seemed at times over the past year that all the ills of Pandora’s box have been re-inflicted on us—death and disease, economic hardship, rekindled racial strife and overdue reckoning, global climate change. The list goes on and we all can probably tick off our own boxes of challenges and worries.

But the ancient Greek story of Pandora, the first woman Zeus was said to have created from the clay of the earth, doesn’t end at the point where all the evils escape after she opens the box. (Worth noting, the “box” isn’t actually a box, but one of those very large urns the Greeks used to store grain, wine, and even human bodies awaiting cremation.) Every version of Pandora’s story makes the important point that after she opened the box, and quickly closed it when she realized the plagues that had escaped, one thing remained inside the box: hope.

Hope is the expectation of good, the belief that the future can be better than our past or present. It’s what remains even when a Pandora’s box opens and it seems everything bad in life is flying up in our face all at once. It may be the last resort when all else seems to fail, but it’s not to be dismissed as pie-in-the-sky. In fact, it can be life-saving.

My late mom used to say to me, more than once, “Better days are coming, John,” when she knew I was fretting about my never-ending struggle to generate a living from the work I love. It was like a mantra, really, as if reciting it often enough would eventually bring those better days about. Well, it turns out there is some truth to that.

 John-Manuel Andriote
The sky is pure azure beyond the storm clouds, in North Franklin, Connecticut.
Source: John-Manuel Andriote

“The evidence is convincing that hope buffers stress and adversity, predicts important outcomes, and can be learned and sustained,” says Caelan Soma, Psy.D., LMSW. “These findings are consistent for both adults and children, demonstrating that hope mitigates the negative effects of toxic stress trauma.” He adds that in more than 2,000 studies investigating hope, “it is one of the best predictors of well-being.”

Hoping for better days is an important part of staying resilient. Soma calls hope “the mindset that should serve as the ‘on ramp’ or ‘driver’ of resilient behavior.” Soma says this hopeful mindset requires goal-setting, thinking with (or even imagining) a future orientation, motivation, empowerment, and a lot of encouragement.

Writing here in Psychology Today, Rob McKenna, one of today’s top 30 most influential industrial and organizational psychologists, says hope is a combination of aspiration, mindset, and action. Working with corporate leaders, McKenna writes that maintaining hope and a sense of purpose is essential to remaining effective leaders—and really living effective lives.

He says the two most powerful factors in a leader’s capacity to maintain their composure under pressure in times of uncertainty were a sense of purpose and, a close second, hopefulness—which McKenna describes as “a focus on positive potential outcomes in the midst of the barriers and obstacles.” He says that although hope is faith in something different and better, it also includes intention and action. “In other words, there might be something we can do about it to increase our capacity to navigate the storms.”

McKenna calls this “hope in action.” He says it’s not disconnection from what may be our harsh and uncertain reality, “but a strategic and intentional identification of the potential in any and every situation.” By actively engaging with your own hopeful possibilities, your hopefulness increases the likelihood they will become realities. Hope can keep us going, but it's up to us to get where we want to be.

“The stakes,” says McKenna, “are too high for us to ignore the power of purpose and hope in the equations of our forward progressions, and getting there simply starts with two questions: Why am I here at this moment? What positive potential outcomes may surface, regardless of how uncertain or chaotic it gets?”

Accentuating even the traces of positivity amidst a storm of negatives fuels hope, keeps us going. Practicing hope-in-action multiplies by orders of magnitude the chance that what we hope for will come to be. Driven by hope and a sense of purpose, we can endure what we must while it lasts even as we take the action we can to move beyond it into a better future.