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The Power of Hope

The secret is focusing on what you can control.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.


How to Cultivate Hope

The secret is focusing on what you can control.

By Dan J. Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Unique among all the positive emotions, hope requires some degree of dissonance, difficulty, negativity, or uncertainty to be ignited. If there isn’t something awry, we don’t call upon hope.

In studying this field, a pattern emerges. People high in hope have sustainably better physical and mental well-being. They also tend to live longer and happier lives. High-hope people see, and respond to, the world differently, and they use their thoughts to focus on what they can control.

Our level of hope can have a big impact on our lives; high-hope people have passion and zest that fuels their energy. This passion is viable and dynamic because there is a degree of persistence and follow-through that accompanies it. They are optimistic about their future and believe in possibilities. They see challenges as opportunities to grow and learn, rather than as obstacles. This is key to the success of many high-hope people. They not only bounce back from setbacks—they seem to bounce forward and keep going despite the challenges. They believe possibilities can open up when they put in the work. Here’s a tip sheet to get you into the habit of hope:

Set and Achieve Goals. Goal-setting is only as important as the action you take toward achieving your goals, and people high in hope do both. They know that without a clear goal, it’s easy to get distracted and lose focus. They don’t let life happen to them; they proactively make decisions and take action to move forward in their lives. Whether it’s a big dream or a small goal, the hopeful typically have something they’re working toward. They usually visualize their goals and create conditions that set them up for success. One way this gets done is through micro-goals, which are brief and reasonable to accomplish. Getting three emails out in the next 15 minutes or preparing lunch in the next 20 minutes are simple examples. Setting goals and taking action can create an upward spiral of engagement and accomplishment.

Stick with Positive People. Being around positive people is one way to keep an optimistic mindset. This doesn’t mean being intolerant of another person’s difficulties, negativity, or struggles, but it does mean that hopeful people tend to spend more time associating with those who share a bright and proactive attitude. People high in hope don’t block themselves from nay-sayers or folks who have a more pessimistic viewpoint. They maintain a healthy balance but don’t get overwhelmed by the negativity around them. They know that seeing different perspectives allows them to cultivate life realistically. While they take in multiple, sometimes difficult, perspectives, they remain compassionate.

Focus on the Present. People high in hope tend to focus on what’s in front of them. They don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future, though they do set goals for themselves. They stay focused on what’s happening right now. This allows them to stay positive and take action. Additionally, hopeful people are always learning. They’re constantly trying to improve themselves and their skill set; this encourages contentment and openness to growth. Hopeful people are grateful for what they have; gratitude keeps them appreciative and grounded in the moment. They recognize that even though they may not have everything they want, they’re still lucky to have so much good in life.

Be Self-Reflective and Confident. While believing in oneself is important, highly hopeful people are able to forgive themselves as well. This is a unique combination because this type of confidence allows a person to be imperfect. In addition, they are willing to take reasonable risks to support their growth. Hopeful people know that failure is inevitable and that it’s important to learn from those experiences, moving forward with positive momentum. This capacity for self-reflection is valuable. Learning from mistakes means viewing failure as an opportunity rather than as a measure of self-worth.

Keep a Positive Outlook. You’ve heard this one before, and that’s because it’s true: When it comes to high-hope people, no matter what life throws at them, they endeavor to see the silver lining. They don’t let the circumstance define their emotional response. In addition to having a positive outlook, high-hope people are also creative problem-solvers. When faced with a challenge, they don’t give up easily. Instead, they formulate solutions that help them overcome the obstacles in their way. In chicken-and-egg fashion, positivity helps creativity, and being creative feeds positivity. They invest their energy in the future and hunt for the good.

Dan J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., is the academic director at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Columbia University and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.


How to Spot False Hope

...and get on a successful track.

What happens when a positive emotion, like hope, gets out of hand? Hope is believing that a positive future outcome is possible, combined with a desire for that outcome. But what if hope is at odds with reality? Hope is not useful when we have unrealistic expectations.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the face of repeated failures. The ad that promises fantastic weight loss in days and the investment opportunity that promises to double your money fuel the fantasy. With little work, says the ad, you can get what you want quickly and painlessly.

When we launch into these endeavors, there is a feeling of control and optimism, and we easily become overconfident. However, because these efforts are built on the sandy foundation of unrealistic expectations, it isn’t long before distress and eventual failure. Then it happens again—a distorted belief that this time will be different. What is delusory is the amount of labor, speed, change, and degree of helpfulness our goal will yield. These distortions can wrangle their way into our consciousness and cause us to act and fail repeatedly. We get stuck and caught in the convoluted world of false hope.

Correcting false hope is relatively straightforward. Learning what is feasible or impossible begins with recognizing a pattern of believing that the unattainable is within reach. It requires one to remember this familiar feeling and thought pattern—along with the memory of failure in the past. This is essential to implement change. Once you know you are in the false-hope loop, a few things can help you align with more realistic goals.

Whatever your goal may be—losing weight or saving money—look up the average amount of time and effort people invest and the results they achieve. The fantasy that you are different from the average is the first clue of false hope. The key is to target the average. If average weight loss per week is two pounds, then that is your measure—not your fantasy amount.

Reappraising your long-term and short-term goals and regularly adjusting your strategy, time line, and approach are all part of remaining resilient. Use short-term goals to increase motivation and progress and bring hope.

False Hope in Others
Someone you care about is caught in a loop of unrealistic expectations, but they balk if you try to convince them they are suffering false hope. Say a friend of yours wants to go back to college. They are sure they are in a better place now than before they dropped out. They plan to take 18 credits for the semester and make up that lost time. You know this is irrational, but they are convinced they have the drive and skill to get this done.

Acknowledge their enthusiasm. Let them know you can see how excited they are about going back to school. You don’t want to dampen their eagerness­—you want to help them channel it. Remind them of the last time they attempted 18 credits: They dropped out. False hope can put blinders on a person; gently help remove them. Also remind your friend that when they took six credits, they aced the courses. Using examples from their own history of success helps them challenge their unreasonable expectations.

When a person comes into conflict with their own way of thinking, they mature emotionally and intellectually. It is how true wisdom develops and what makes way for realistic optimism and hope. —Dan J. Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.


Leveraging Anticipatory Joy

Careful planning can ensure a consistently good mood.

By Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Having to confront an indeterminate outcome that might be bad seems to cause more anxiety than having to confront an outcome already known to be bad. In one study, patients requiring colostomies that were potentially reversible were actually found to be less happy six months after their operation than patients whose colostomies were permanent. Uncertainty prevented them from adapting to the change, keeping them focused on and attached to what they still stood to lose. Uncertainty about the future has almost unequaled power to lower our life conditions in the present.

The converse of this, however, also seems to be true: Anticipating something pleasant seems to have almost unequaled power to make our present glow. Anticipatory joy is frequently greater than that brought to us by experiencing the very things we anticipate. This is often because an experience does not live up to our expectations, and the difference between those expectations and reality mutes our experiential joy. But it’s also because anticipating a pleasure is itself intrinsically pleasurable.

When I’ve looked for the difference between my happy and unhappy days, I’ve noticed that the former are likely to be filled with thoughts about events I look forward to, while the latter are practically empty of them. Having something to look forward to is obviously not the sole determinant of my mood, but it clearly exerts a powerful influence. Powerful enough that when my mood falls and I don’t know why, I ask myself first if the reason is because of the absence of anticipatory pleasure.

A lack of anticipatory pleasure usually can explain a depressed mood in the absence of other obvious reasons for it—that is, adverse events. Joyful anticipation is so important to my sense of well-being, in fact, that I almost always plan for something to look forward to. For me, this can be going to a movie or a play with my wife, reading a good book, completing errands, or even organizing my desk. I’ve learned that the activity needn’t be large or significant or meaningful—just something I look forward to, even a little bit.

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to find such things, especially if a problem looms large in our lives that’s actually distressing us. Nevertheless, our brains are so constituted that we’re able to feel more than one thing at a time—including diametrically opposed feelings like happiness and sadness. Even when we’re depressed, placing something in front of us that we look forward to can help lift our mood.

It takes a certain amount of planning and preparation to arrange a consistent schedule of pleasurable activities to enjoy anticipating, but it’s well worth the investment.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is the founder and medical director of ImagineMD.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.


The Expectation-Resentment Loop

There’s a line between legitimate and illegitimate expectations.

By Peg O’Connor, Ph.D.

Nothing ramps up expectations like holidays, special occasions, and other rites of passage. The word expectation comes from the Latin expectare, which means “to await” or “look out for.” We all have expectations, and many of them are legitimate. In the context of a committed relationship, each of us has a legitimate expectation of honesty. My students have a legitimate expectation that I will come to class prepared.

Legitimate expectations are tethered to reality in an important way. They arise out of particular contexts in which parties have a shared understanding of the nature of the relationship and shared goals; they are neither free-floating nor flying in the face of reality.

Even in cases where expectations are legitimate, they may not always be met. In a committed relationship, one person may not be completely honest and reveal that she is planning a surprise party. I may not be fully prepared for a class because I have spent the previous day in the emergency room with a friend.

Disappointments may follow from legitimate expectations not being met, but these disappointments can often be alleviated and redressed. I can explain to my students what happened and offer to meet outside of the class schedule. The person planning the surprise party may hear from her partner about the whispered conversations or sudden silences he experienced when he walked into a room, which felt scary and suspicious. Disappointments and dashed legitimate expectations may prompt some resentment, but that resentment should have a relatively short life.

If a person is holding on to the disappointment, however, and even cultivating it, something is amiss in the relationship. Disappointment can provide opportunities, wanted or unwanted, to revisit expectations and the relationship itself.

Less legitimate or inappropriate expectations tend to be untethered from reality in important ways. Expectations are tricky little buggers because they have both affective-emotional content and cognitive content.

Often, the affective content sprints far ahead of the cognitive content. What one wishes and hopes for becomes what one expects. A person awaits or looks for what she wishes, hopes, and imagines. This wishfulness along with the imaginings tends to smother the rational mind, resulting in untethered expectations. The inappropriate expectations are the ones that can generate huge resentments.

An extended family has a rotation for hosting big family events. Cathy is slated to host the next one. When her sister hosted, it was a smashing success. Everything was great—the food was delicious, the house festively decorated, cousins played well together, and siblings were kind to one another. Cathy expects her gathering to be just as successful. The food will be great, even though she can’t cook. The house will look beautiful, even though her idea of decorating is dust bunnies. And siblings will be kind to each other, even though they had a recent blow-up over the care of an aging parent.

Cathy’s wishes fill her mind, quieting the voice that reminds her about certain realities. She may willfully ignore certain facts: She hates to cook. She has no interest in decorating. She knows the fighting siblings are not the sort to give up grievances and tend to regress to their least attractive teenage selves. She knows all of this, and yet her wishes power rich and robust imaginings, dreams even, of the event. She’s looking forward to every wonderful thing she has imagined.

There are multiple sets of expectations running in this familiar scenario. It is not a happy festive occasion. Cathy has expectations of other people acting in ways she thinks will be appropriate. She is trying to manufacture a situation for people to act in ways she knows, on some level, they will not. Cathy will direct her resentment at others, but there’s enough resentment to direct at herself.

Instead, she might consider the expectations she put on herself. In some sense, she does the same thing to herself that she does to others. She knows she hates to cook, yet she envisions herself creating a culinary masterpiece. Will Cathy resent these expectations or the fact that she could not meet them? Most likely, she will resent both.

How can people avoid being trapped in this cycle of expectation-disappointment-resentment? We can look to the philosopher Epictetus, who offers counsel: It’s up to us to recognize what we can control and what we can’t.

While much of the external world and reality are beyond our control, our opinions and attitudes are up to us. An attitude of expectation where we await and look for things as we imagine they should be is one that we can control. We can learn to adjust the balance between our wishes and our rational assessments about how much we can shape reality.

As Epictetus advises, “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Adopting this manner of living short-circuits the expectations-disappointment-resentment loop and positions a person to appreciate what actually does occur.

Peg O’Connor, Ph.D., is a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.


The Beauty Isn’t Out There; It’s Down Here

A universal perspective.

Actor William Shatner was 90 when he flew to space, and he had thought that the journey would be the ultimate catharsis of the connection between all living things, something he had been looking for. Being up there would be the next beautiful step to understanding the harmony of the universe.

Everything he had thought and expected to see was wrong. “There was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold; all I saw was death,” Shatner says. He saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. When he turned back toward the light of home, he saw life. “The curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds in the blue of the sky. Nurturing, sustaining life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.”

Shatner was filled with sadness and grief in viewing the contrast between the frightening coldness of space and the warm, nurturing Earth below. The destruction of Earth, the extinction of animal species, things that took billions of years to evolve, filled him with dread. His trip to space was supposed to be a celebration, but instead it felt like a funeral.

Like others before him who had traveled to space and viewed Earth from orbit, Shatner instinctively sensed the planet’s fragility. He saw clearly that there are no borders on our planet except those we create in our minds and behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us disappear when viewed from the perspective of orbit and the moon.

The result is a shift in worldview and in identity. Shatner discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made his connection to our tiny planet even more profound. Research suggests that awe can make you happier, healthier, more humble, and more connected to the people around you. Shatner recommends that everyone take the trip, but it is a little expensive.

Maybe we can learn from his experience and try to change the way we look at the planet and divisive things like countries, ethnicities, and religions. We can connect in shared harmony and shift our focus to all the wonderful things we have in common while respecting what makes us different.

Shatner’s experience reinforced his view of the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective existence, and eventually, a feeling of hope returned to his heart. —Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, Ed.D.

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