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The Psychological Basis Of Hope And How It Gets Us Through Hard Times

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at November 2, 2021

By Sarah Jeanne Browne—

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” ~Nelson Mandela 

Some problems can make you feel powerless. Hardships happen, and can show up in trauma, abuse, financial woes, neglect, mental health issues, loss, and anything that affects your wellbeing. Hopelessness can lead to depression and anxiety and can thwart any good efforts to make change.

Yet, hope is one of those things that is underappreciated and overlooked. It’s about imagining life in a different way than it is today. Mako Fujimura says, “Without hope, you can’t create.”

If you find yourself at a detour, dead-end, or in a place that you would rather not be, you must lean onto hope in order to cope. Hope can look like believing in the impossible, defying the odds, moving mountains, changing lives, embracing uncertainty, healing when you have been hurt, showing up when you could run away, and opening yourself up to possibilities. Hope is not bypassing all fear and sadness such as with toxic positivity. Hope is making it through another day and one more and the next because you are curious about what’s around the corner. Hope is waking up each morning grateful to be alive. Hope is the reason you hang on, your ‘why.’ Hope is a powerful motivator and therapeutic tool. Hope fixes the broken hearted, the lonely, the lost, and confused, and it instills a sense of peace and drive in them so they can move forward. Hope defies logic, sometimes, because the rational brain does not always see a way through, but the heart knows.

Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search Meaning, says “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.” Even where there is no perceived hope, there is meaning. There is always, alway something you can do to be the light in the dark.

Stories of Hope

Louis Zamperini

Louis Zamperini’s story was told in the book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, and in a movie based on his life produced by Angelina Jolie. His life story showcases how hope helped him to survive great obstacles. 

Louis was a wild child, so to get him to be self-disciplined and on a good path, his family got him into track. At first, he wasn’t good at it. But then he became the fastest miler in California state history. He went on to compete in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a distance runner. After he came home, he joined the air force during World War II. He flew a B-24 Bomber, but it crashed. He survived along with two other men who were stuck in the South Pacific Ocean on a raft. They were growing hungry and thirsty, and sharks kept trying to attack them. Francis McNamara despaired and died. The others who survived were Louis and Russel Allen Phillips after they finally made it to land, all because of hope.

According to Hillenbrand in Unbroken, “Given the dismal record of raft-bound men, Mac’s despair was reasonable. What is remarkable is that the two men who shared Mac’s plight didn’t share his hopelessness. Though all three faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates…Louie’s and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped.”

Liz Murray

“Life has a way of doing that; one minute everything makes sense, the next, things change. People get sick. Families break apart, your friends could close the door on you. The rapid changes I had experienced were hitting me hard as I sat there, and yet sadness wasn’t what came up in my gut. Out of nowhere, for whatever reason, a different feeling snuck up in its place, hope. If life could change for the worst, I thought, then maybe life could change for the better.” 

Liz Murray’s parents were addicts, and her mom was HIV-infected. Liz was bullied in school for being unclean and homeless. Due to humiliation, she became a drop out but then returned when she was seventeen. She was determined to be the best and wanted academic success. In her struggles, her determination won. She went from homeless to Harvard and became a bestselling author of her memoir, Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard. The movie, Homeless to Harvard, is based on her life. 

Nick Vujicic

“If you need a friend, become someone else’s. If you don’t have hope, give hope to others.”

Nick Vujicic has phocomelia. He was born without limbs. He was bullied most of his life and was even suicidal. Then he met someone else born without limbs and wanted to help him. This changed his perspective and gave him hope. He became a speaker for youth. His businesses later failed, and he was worried about being a burden again to his family. This triggered depression. His then girlfriend, Kanae, told him she would get a job as a nurse. They got married and had kids. Now, he speaks against bullying and suicide. He founded the nonprofit, “Life Without Limbs” and is a motivational speaker touching millions of lives. He wrote the book, Life Without Limits: Inspiration For a Ridiculously Good Life

Benefits of Hope

Hope not only gives us meaning, but it’s good for us. It leads to positive emotions and optimism and is a key component of happiness. It aids in depression and anxiety, according to a study by Dr. Randolph Arnua. Another study shows that the greater the hope, the lower the anxiety and vice versa. Other research also concludes this along with people having higher levels of happiness and wellbeing. In fact, research shows they cope better with physical injuries and diseases such as cancer. A study shows that hope leads college students towards academic success and achievements. Hope relieves stress, and helps you develop healthier habits. There is also a lower mortality rate.

Overall, hope benefits mental and physical health and helps you overcome obstacles and achieve your goals. 

Hope and The Brain

According to Big Think, a study using fMRI imaging on 231 students in China were tested using the hope scale and the Strait-Trait Anxiety Test and “found that the presence of the hope trait was related to lower fALFF values in the bilateral medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) area of the brain. That is the region involved in reward-related procession, the production of motivation, solving problems and goal-oriented behavior, according to the scientists.

The orbitofrontal cortex is located just above the orbits of the eyes and goes back several centimeters into the frontal base of the brain. The scientists discovered that the hope trait worked as a mediator between mOFC activity and anxiety.”

This study shows that hope relieved anxiety and helped people become motivated. They focused better on their goals, too. 

When people are optimistic, they experience activity in the amygdala (emotional processing center) and part of a region of anterior cingulate cortex (reflecting on the self, past, and future). 

Jerome Groopman’s research reveals that hope can block pain by releasing endorphins and enkephalins, much like morphine. Hope also impacts the nervous system, increasing recovery. This is seen with the placebo effect. 

Hope Theory 

Dr. Charles Richard Synder was a psychologist specializing in the field of positive psychology. He developed the “hope theory.” This entails goals, paths, and freedom of choice. He defines hope as the motivation and ability to achieve your goals. He believes in coming up with multiple paths towards your goal for greater chance at success.

Synder’s Hope Theory has three modes of thinking:

  • Goals Thinking- Conceptualization of your goals
  • Pathways Thinking- Strategizing and planning to reach those goals
  • Agency Thinking- The motivation to achieve goals using those strategies

Synder believes that goal setting is all about positive self-talk and positive emotions. Opportunity opens up when you have positive emotions, however, more obstacles come up when you have negative emotions. The more solutions you come up with to a problem, the greater the agency or motivation and positive emotions. Obstacles are to be anticipated but are not permanent. 

Pathways thinking is about asking the following questions:

  • What is happening?
  • What is my goal?
  • What are my obstacles towards this goal?

Agency thinking is about asking the following questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What works to my advantage?
  • When was I able to achieve something like this before? Why?

Snyder developed a Hope Scale which you can access here.

Dr. Randolph Arnau believes that even though there is a hope model by Synder, he prefers another measure of hope from nurse researcher, Kaye Herth, which also values goals and working towards them. But she has a social support component. Afterall, no man is an island. We need each other in order to rise above our challenges.

Dr. Shane Lopez says hope is “the golden mean between euphoria and fear. It is a feeling where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion.”

Lopez believes in futurecasting (visualizing future you desire), creating the pathways (coming up with multiple solutions), and then he adds planning for contingencies. He says there is also another step towards developing hope when faced with trauma. He calls this  “regoaling.” He says, “Regoaling is where hope meets courage … Regoaling requires us to let go of some of our dreams to make the best possible future.” This is when you face reality and make goals accordingly. He uses the example that parents of terminally ill children shift from the hope that their child will make it to the hope that their final days are comfortable. They choose to help their child make peace with what is, as they try to make peace with it themselves. Regoaling entails radical acceptance.

Dr. Duane Bidwall and his colleague, Dr. Donald Batisky, came up with 5 main pathways to hope after researching hope in children with chronic illness:

  • Maintaining Identity- Having a sense of self outside of obstacles or illness
  • Realizing Community- Social support
  • Claiming power- Making positive choices towards one’s own health and wellbeing
  • Attending to Spirituality- Meaningful activity that can be spiritual, religious, or any contemplative practices
  • Developing Wisdom- Lessons learned that can improve one’s life and giving back

According to these theories, hope is related to goals, anticipating obstacles, acceptance, self-worth, social support, and finding meaning in your situation. However, it’s important to note that hope must be rooted in reality, for fear of being false hope. False hope is denial. Hope itself is simply determination.

Hope Vs. Optimism

Personality psychologists, Gene Alaron, Nathan Bowling, and Steven Khazon, say the difference between hope and optimism is, “Simply put, the optimistic person believes that somehow—either through luck, the actions of others, or one’s own actions—that his or her future will be successful and fulfilling. The hopeful person, on the other hand, believes specifically in his or her own capability for securing a successful and fulfilling future.”

However, they are often used interchangeably. Hope is trusting in one’s own ability towards goal setting (goals thinking) and coming up with multiple solutions (pathways thinking) as well as having enough motivation (agency thinking) to get there. Optimism is the belief that the future will be better even if you don’t know how. Both are helpful to have. In a way, optimism is seeing the glass half full. Hope is knowing you have the power to refill it.

Application: How to Develop Hope

Here are 5 strategies to develop hope. Anyone can utilize them. They are about believing in your capabilities and carrying out your convictions. 

Visualization

Visualization helps with goal creation. Visualize the success you want and the end result of achieving your goals. Come up with as many details as possible. What does it look like to get from Point A to Point B? Don’t worry about the ‘how.’ Just focus on the feeling. Mindtools says, “Imagine each step toward your successful conclusion.” Vision boards or journaling what success looks like to you is a helpful exercise. Guided meditations such as this one also help. Neuromuscular pathways light up when you visualize connecting your brain to your muscles. This will help you to focus more on your goals and give you motivation to complete them.

Look Back, Move Forward 

There was a study where participants reflected on a past goal achieved and how it felt to achieve that goal. This led to gratitude towards the past achievements which increased their happiness and hope for their future. According to the study, if they focused on “lessons learned, resilience shown, and growth experienced,” they could develop hope even through traumatic experiences. This is another way of counting your blessings.

Reflect on your past wins by asking yourself:

  • What did I accomplish?
  • Did I do my best?
  • What could I have done better?
  • What did I learn?
  • How can I use this lesson?

Note your progress. It’s important to evaluate both successes and failures without getting caught up in either. See how your mindset shifts from one of hopelessness to hope. 

Create “If-Then Plans

  1. Dr. Peter Gollwitzer has led research on planning for obstacles. He says to create “if-then plans.” People achieve more when they plan for obstacles. And life happens so it’s good to be prepared. This is also called the implementation intention which says “If this happens, then I’ll do this.” Gollwitzer, says “For instance, people who have formed the goal intention to exercise regularly can furnish it with implementation intentions that specify when, where, and how they want to exercise. The implementation of their goal intention is thus placed under the direct control of situational cues and removed from conscious and effortful control.” 

And if-then plan looks like this: “If I go for a run outside and it starts to rain, I’ll run on the treadmill in the gym instead.”

It’s always good to plan for a rainy day. How can you apply this to your goals?

Combat Negative Self-Talk

Everyone has a negativity bias. You see the negative more than the positive. Negative events hold a stronger place in your memory. You also tend to believe negative feedback more than positive. The inner critic overpowers self-compassion in these instances creating negative self-talk. 

Negative self-talk is essentially your brain lying to you. How you can combat this is to recognize what cognitive distortion your brain is using. For example, you might catastrophize by thinking the worst will happen. Or you use All or Nothing thinking by assuming if one thing goes wrong, everything is wrong. For a full list of cognitive distortions, click here. You can combat negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Try some positive affirmations such as “I have what it takes.” Instead of asking what could go wrong, ask, “What could go right?”

Mindfulness

Life is all about how you react, and it’s best to be mindful in the mayhem. Mindfulness means you stay in the present moment. You don’t react to your thoughts, but let them come and go without attachment or judgment. This healthy detachment allows you to assess things more objectively, reduces rumination, enhances focus, increases self-insight, and relieves stress. It puts things into perspective. You may realize that you’re doing better than you think! Try this Hope Meditation to become mindful.

Sarah Jeanne Browne is a speaker, writer, and activist who has been published on Lifehack, Tiny Buddha, Thrive Global and more. See @sarahjbrowne.

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