How to Breathe Hope Into Our “New Normal”
The science of hope and wonder can help us reinvent our post-pandemic future.
Posted June 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- Before the pandemic, more than half of Americans reported being unhappy in their jobs and 61 percent reported feeling continuously lonely.
- Hope is a skill that can be developed, and research suggests that hope improves overall happiness, job satisfaction, and health.
- Ways to practice hopeful thinking include focusing on a few achievable goals, making time for passions, and sharing one's goals with others.
As vaccine rates creep upward and the US reopens, a return to the “new normal” actually seems within reach. But before we dive back into 80-hour workweeks, let’s stop and ask ourselves: Was pre-pandemic “normal” in life, work, and relationships—or even some variation of it—one that we want to return to?
Before you answer, here are some stats to consider. As of 2019:
- 3 in 5 Americans (61 percent) reported feeling continuously lonely.
- More than half of U.S. workers reported being unhappy in their jobs.
- 9 out of 10 workers surveyed said they would be willing to earn less in exchange for more meaningful work.
- Families spend only 37 minutes of “quality time” together per day, one survey found. Counter that with the 3 hours and 43 minutes that the average U.S. adult spends on screens.
The COVID crisis has laid bare the alienation, isolation, and longing for purpose that characterizes Americans in the 21st century. But the pandemic has also revealed that human beings are far more creative, generous, and altruistic than we give ourselves credit for. It has revealed that the very institutions, systems, and social norms we once considered fixed and unchangeable can, in fact, change.
So what if we take advantage of this opportunity to step into a new way of working, creating, and relating in this soon-to-be post-pandemic era? What if, instead of “returning to normal,” we take this chance to reinvent normal?
Maybe instead of a "return to normal," we can focus on "the great reopening." Maybe we do more than just reopen stores and restaurants by reopening our ways of thinking, working, and relating.
Of course, old habits die hard. It’s all too easy to slip back into our individualistic mindsets that favor hyper-productivity at the expense of humanity. So, how do we shift our thinking from me to we?
One central key to fostering connection and sustaining meaningful change isn’t grit, or even innovation. It is hope.
Hope as a Facet of Wonder vs. Wishful Thinking
In a chaotic world that makes learned helplessness an easy default choice, hope can be a creative, deliberate choice to stand up—rather than shut down—in the face of crises. And despite the challenges of the past 18 months, hope is actually on the rise with 56 percent of young Americans feeling hopeful about the country’s future (as compared to 31 percent in 2017). Yet we tend to think of hope as a naive or superfluous emotion, the cherry on top of an already successful life.
Hope is one of six facets of wonder I’ve identified in my body of work and assimilation of research.
Recent research suggests that hope is an invaluable resource to fuel and uplift us through times of challenge and change. Not only is hope good for you, hope is a measurable skill that can be developed with practice. But there is an important distinction between hopeful and wishful thinking.
Though both mindsets accept that the future will be better than the present, hope encompasses action and agency—it is the belief that we have the power to make the future better. Hopeful thinking means understanding “failures” or misfortunes as temporary setbacks, and reframing them in a way that empowers us to reclaim our agency and direct the course of our own lives. In other words: While wishing is passive, hope is active.
This sense of optimism and agency empowers us, rippling outward to affect all areas of our lives. As Shane Lopez, senior scientist for Gallup, says, “Hope is the leading indicator of success in relationships, academics, career, and business—as well as of a healthier, happier life.”
So how can we begin to practice more hopeful thinking in our lives? Here are three steps to do so.
How to Practice Hopeful Thinking
1. Edit your life down to two to three achievable goals.
Rather than heaping more energy- and time-intensive resolutions onto your already overflowing plate, limit your focus to two to three positive, impactful goals. Make sure that they are specific and achievable. Most importantly, make sure that they genuinely excite you or add something positive to your daily life.
These goals can be short- or long-term, but the literature on hope shows over and over again that when we set one to three doable goals a week tied to something meaningful, then we keep our mind expansive and our mood elevated. We stay in the realm of pragmatic possibility.
2. Shape time to keep the dream alive.
Try blocking out time in your week to dedicate to your passion projects or goals. With our increasingly busy lives, odds are that you won’t do something unless it’s on your calendar. Also, keep track of your progress. Even if you just jot down notes on how you spend that time, being able to look back on your journey will show you how far you’ve come and give you the motivation to keep forging ahead.
3. Share your dream.
Though it might sound intimidating at first, sharing your goals with the right people can have win-win-win effects.
First, you might be surprised to learn that you’re not alone. Others may want to share in your journey or have advice of their own to offer.
Second: Even if they respectfully disagree with or challenge your idea, that friction can spark the surprise, confusion, or curiosity to fuel you on your quest. Studies show that these epistemic emotions encourage deeper learning and questioning than the simple gratification of someone else’s approval.
Third, the creative dialogue you spark by sharing your dreams can give rise to new perspectives on our given reality and therefore, new possibilities that drive social change. Plus your dream is infused with fresh life when others pay attention to it.
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