Almost 8 months into a pandemic, with our loved ones affected by this crisis one way or another, during an emotionally exhausting election cycle, as cold weather is limiting our outdoors activities, some days may feel hopeless. Yet hope is the very best reaction for the moment. Hope is crucial to our mental and physical health. Hope guards against anxiety and despair, it protects us from stress. Research shows that people with higher levels of hope have better coping skills and bounce back from setbacks faster. They’re better at problem-solving and have lower levels of burnout. They have stronger relationships, because they communicate better and are more trusting, they’re less-stressed parents, more able to teach their children to set goals and solve problems. People who have a higher level of hope have healthier habits, they sleep and exercise more, eat more healthy foods and practice safer sex. They also have fewer colds, less hypertension and diabetes, are more likely to survive cancer, and have less depression.
Hope is our mental PPE—a Personal Protective Emotion. Most psychologists define hope as a yearning for something possible but not certain—such as a better future—and a belief that you have some power to make it happen. And they believe it has two crucial components: agency—or the motivation, to achieve the desired goal, and a strategy—or pathway, to do that. This is how it differs from optimism, which is the belief the future will work out no matter what you do. To lose 10 pounds, you need a plan—a healthy diet or an exercise program—and the willpower to follow it. Without this, you’ve got no real hope for a fitter body, just wishful thinking.
Hope is made up of four components. Attachment is a sense of continued trust and connection to another person. Mastery, or empowerment, is a feeling of being strong and capable—and of having people you admire and people who validate your strengths. Survival has two features—a belief that you aren’t trapped in a bad situation and have a way out, and an ability to hold on to positive thoughts and feelings even while processing something negative. Spirituality is a belief in something larger than yourself. People who have all four of these resources are more hopeful and, therefore, more resilient.
Most-hopeful president overall, based on his first inaugural speech, was Barack Obama. The second most-hopeful, Richard Nixon. President Nixon scored highest in attachment, while President Obama scored highest in mastery. John F. Kennedy scored highest in survival—he talked about fighting communism and ensuring the liberty of the country. Although low in everything else, George W. Bush scored highest in spirituality. Historians who study the rhetoric of presidents and other great leaders say that the most hopeful speeches do not always mention the word itself much, but they instill a sense of agency—of a plan and an ability to deliver on it. Take Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, widely considered one of the most hope-inspiring orations in U.S. history. Dr. King laid out a dream, but also had instructions: “We cannot walk alone.” “We cannot turn back.” “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Of course, it seems harder to choose hope at the moment, when the world seems so bleak and our brains are on high alert, constantly scanning for threat. Hope is competing with all our other thoughts and emotions for attention right now, it has to struggle to find its place in our mind. If you’re grappling with a deep despair and are having trouble finding any hope, we strongly recommend you speak to a therapist, doctor, counselor, family member or friend. Similarly, if someone you know seems despondent or hopeless, please reach out to them. In case you need it, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800-273-8255. Some people are more hopeful than others, thanks to a combination of nature and nurture.
The good news is that hope, like all parts of our brain, is malleable and you can boost it because of neuroplasticity. Scientists say it’s important that the area of the brain that activates when we feel hopeful—the rostral anterior cingulate cortex—sits at the intersection of the limbic system, which governs our emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, where thoughts and actions are initiated. This shows we have some influence over feelings of hope (or hopelessness). Hope is a choice.
Researchers have some advice for everyone whose hope could use a boost right now.
To increase hope, it helps to know your baseline or starting point and which areas you need to improve. In the early 1990s, a psychologist named C.R. Snyder created the Adult Trait Hope Scale
, a list of 12 questions that test whether a person has both the agency and the pathway-thinking necessary for hope. And Dr. Scioli has a longer online quiz
that explores the four areas he believes hopeful people draw on: attachment, mastery, survival and spirituality. It can measure both your current level of hope and your long-term capacity for it.
Read history. History can help put things in perspective, it reminds us that bad times do end. It reminds how people have held onto hope in the darkest times. Focusing on the ways history has moved forward positively, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or Nelson Mandela’s journey from prison to president of South Africa, is inspiring.
Future cast. Imagine yourself happy when life returns to normal. Experts recommend visualizing four areas of your life—home and family, career, community and recreation—and asking yourself how you would like them to look in the future. Picture them in great detail. (Who are you with? What are you doing? How do you look?) Those are your goals. Next, think about what you need to do now to make that vision happen.
Take a small step. Often, when we’re stressed, we become overwhelmed. Setting one goal for the week—and identifying the steps we need to take to reach it—can give us a sense of control. Once we begin to experience the success in those steps, we start to see more clearly that the future is possible and we have the power to pursue that goal.
Watch your words. When we despair, we tend to speak in absolutes and negatives. Those are hope killers. How Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor said: “Every word we speak or write matters.” His advice was to think carefully about your words. Use hopeful language: “I can.” “We will.” “It’s possible.”
Spread hope. Emotions are contagious. And everyone is searching for hope right now. So model it for others. Explain what makes you hopeful, share your goals, and describe how you plan to reach them. You may garner support, you’ll inspire others, showing what is possible.
You can do this at home. You can create a meditation for hope by recording inspiring quotes to soothing background music, and include images in your meditation: hope as a bridge, as light, as something that will warm you. The abstract imagery will reach into the right hemisphere of your brain, which focuses on emotions, relationships and images. To tap into the left side of your brain, which focuses on language and logic, you can try a writing exercise. Make a list of the people and things in your life that can help you with each of the four areas of hope: attachment, mastery, survival and spirituality.
Focus on something that excites you. It reminds you what hope feels like. You can start by doing what you do best—it will give you a boost in confidence and mood. It is also important to spend time with the most hopeful people you know. Hope is contagious too.