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The Three Conditions for Hope to Thrive

Hope begins when we set these simple conditions in our lives, research suggests.

Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels

If you’re like most people, you’ve wondered why people do what they do. This seemingly simple question drives much of the research in the field of psychology, and it hardly has simple answers. Nonetheless, one starting place for answers is that people often choose certain actions over others because they have hope that those actions will lead to outcomes they desire.

Think about it: Why would you do anything unless you had at least some hope that it would bring you closer to a future you wanted? Tasks like going to school, applying for jobs, and maintaining loving friendships or romantic relationships can all be difficult, frustrating, and sometimes awkward. We do them, at least in part, because we have an abiding hope that they’ll lead us somewhere we want to go.

Hope has kindled the human spirit for thousands of years. In ancient Greek mythology, hope was the single asset that remained with humanity after all the evils in Pandora’s box were released upon the world. It’s one of Catholicism’s theological virtues (along with faith and charity). President Obama was elected to his first term in office after writing a book titled The Audacity of Hope. Despite this deep history, however, it wasn’t until the past few decades that hope was accepted as a subject worthy of scientific study.

One of the difficulties in studying hope is that, given its religious and cultural significance, there are probably as many ways to define hope as there are people to define it. For this reason, psychologist C. R. Snyder took a novel, grass-roots approach to developing a new theory of hope. He approached community leaders, including politicians, clergy, educators, and business executives. He asked all of them to name the most hopeful people they knew using whatever definitions of hope they wanted. Then, he interviewed as many people on their lists as he could. What he discovered was a surprisingly simple, yet useful view of hope.

These hopeful people shared three things—goals, pathways, and agency. Although Snyder called these the “three components of hope,” it may be more useful to think of them as the three conditions for hope to thrive. Almost three decades since, dozens of studies now show that people who have these conditions set in their lives achieve their goals more readily, cope better with setbacks, feel their lives are more meaningful, and even experience lower anxiety and depression than those who are missing one or more of them.

Surprisingly, these conditions are simpler to set in our lives than you might think.

Condition #1: Goals

The first condition for hope to thrive is to have something to hope for. Goals can be anything that we desire to get, do, be, experience, or create. They can be in any area of life, ranging from career objectives like meeting monthly sales quotas and climbing corporate ladders to social and even spiritual aspirations like being a more loving partner or a more faithful Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist.

Whatever the specifics, the key to effectively setting this first condition is to adopt goals that are personally meaningful, that provide a sense of purpose. Research shows that goals that are consonant with our most important personal values are more motivating and associated with greater levels of well-being than less values-concordant goals. Nonetheless, many of us spend the bulk of our time pursuing goals that are more important to others—our bosses, families, or friends—than to ourselves. Although it’s not necessarily unhealthy to do things for other people, it’s very easy to forget ourselves in the process. So, an important key to setting the first condition for hope to thrive is asking yourself, “What’s important to me? What do I value?” Then, consider what goals you might set in your life—even small ones—that might help you live more in line with your answers.

Condition #2: Pathways

The second condition for hope to thrive involves the ability to generate pathways. A pathway is a strategy or plan for achieving a goal. While pathways can be simple or complex, the important thing is to choose to do something—anything—that could positively contribute to achieving whatever goal we have embraced. Often, when a person doesn’t act on a goal, it’s because of a belief that the pathway is just too long and difficult. So, it’s important to keep in mind that our most valued goals are rarely achieved quickly. Many people’s pathways involve a series of small steps that are tackled one at a time.

One of the simplest ways of setting this condition in our lives is to make a “pathways map.” Just take out a sheet of paper, turn it 90 degrees, and draw a timeline from left to right. On the left (at the beginning of the timeline) write “I am here”; on the right (at the end of the timeline) write down the goal you would like to accomplish in the next few months. Next, consider the steps you’ll need to take along this pathway, writing each down across the page with approximate dates. It will be best if you use a pencil, so you can erase and rearrange the steps as needed. One of the important lessons learned from studying hopeful people is that pathways should never be set in stone; it’s healthy to alter them as you encounter obstacles, discover new desires, and learn about yourself along the way.

Condition #3: Agency

The final condition for hope to thrive involves nurturing personal agency. Agency refers to the motivation that pushes us to strive for our goals. Agency derives primarily from our beliefs about ourselves. In other words, the way we talk to ourselves matters. As in Watty Piper’s famous children’s book, The Little Engine That Could, beliefs like “I think I can” fuel our hope and motivate us to act. Unfortunately, many of us have a running critic in our heads that produces low-agency thoughts like “You’re not good enough,” “There’s no way you’ll succeed,” or even, “It’s not worth trying.”

Though we may have internalized these beliefs at an early age, it’s never too late to change them. One way to begin tackling these agency-sapping thoughts is to divide a sheet of paper into three columns: “goal,” “low-agency self-talk,” and “high-agency alternatives.” In the first column, write down some of the goals you’re currently working on. Now, ask yourself what self-talk pops into your mind as you consider each goal. Are you criticizing your chances of success? Jot down this negative self-talk in the second column. Once you’ve done this for a few goals, look for patterns. Are there certain phrases you use repeatedly? These beliefs may be sapping your agency. Last, brainstorm some higher-agency alternatives. Instead of “I can’t do this,” see if you can tell yourself “I might be able to do this, but I won’t know unless I try.” Be positive but realistic. Telling yourself things you know to be unrealistically rosy won’t be as effective as acknowledging the difficulties you face, yet encouraging yourself to continue. The tiny locomotive in The Little Engine That Could didn’t make it up the hill by thinking, “This will be no sweat!” Realistic thoughts like “I think I can, if only I keep trying” are far more powerful.

Swiss theologian Emil Brunner once wrote, “What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of human life.” But hope doesn’t have to be a mysterious concept. Hope begins when we set three simple conditions in our lives. If we’ve been without one or more of these conditions for a while, it may take some time to reestablish them.

But, with effort, hope isn’t something any of us have to live without.

More from David B. Feldman Ph.D.
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