Hope is essential, psychologists say

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Most people hope for something.

The big things: An end to the pandemic. Their candidate to w‌in the presidential election. A better future for their children. They hope for tangible things: a bigger paycheck, a safe home, good health. And the more amorphous ones: love, respect, to feel seen. 

Recent polls show that while most Americans remain at least somewhat hopeful about the future, hope is being tested. Suffering and division are ever-present, and there doesn’t seem a clear path forward. But psychologists say hope is not a luxury. For mental health, it’s a necessity. 

“Most people think about it … like the sprinkles on an ice cream, like it’s great if it’s there, but I think it’s actually fundamental to our basic wellbeing,” said Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and interfaith minister.

Saturday is World Mental Health Day, and decades of research show hope is a robust predictor of mental health. Not only does it make life more enjoyable, experts say, but hope also provides resilience against things like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Hope offers chemical benefits too, in the form of endorphins and lowered stress levels, things, experts say, make people more productive.

Two women hold hands and carry face masks on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo: Petr David Josek, AP)

Contrary to how some people talk about hope, researchers don’t view it as a passive emotional state. While colloquially people may say things like, “sit back and hope for the best,” researchers who study hope say it’s an active coping approach. 

“Hope is how we can think about our goals for the future, the extent that we can identify pathways or strategies to achieve those goals and then maintaining the motivation or the agency to kind of keep working towards those goals, even in the face of obstacles or setbacks,” said Matthew Gallagher, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston.

Hope is ‘a resource’

In a paper Gallagher published in 2013, he and other researchers looked at whether people expected their lives five years in the future to be good or better than their current ones. The study included more than 100,000 people from over 100 countries and found that worldwide, people tend to have positive expectations for the future – they often believe it can be as good or equal to the present. 

“It’s a resource that even people who are facing all kinds of obstacles are able to maintain and are able to rely on to cope with all kinds of different stressors,” he said.

A CBS poll at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March found that overall people reported feeling calm (62%) and hopeful (55%) more than they felt negative emotions. A poll by The New York Times and Siena College in June found that while many Americans are frustrated in the short term, they remain hopeful in the long-run. Sixty-eight percent of voters said they were hopeful about the state of the country.

Hope and optimism are not the same

Although hope and optimism are sometimes used interchangeably, researchers say they are distinct. Hope is about using personal agency to achieve a desired outcome. Optimism is when people expect good things to happen more than bad ones. 

“Both are about positive expectations for the future but one is about the individual driving work towards their goals … and the other is that we believe things are going to work out and we’re not sure how,” Gallagher said.

Hope isn’t always easy, but it is effective in helping people flourish across many domains, including work and school. It’s galvanizing.

“Hope brings oxygen into our consciousness,” Colier said. “If we generate hope, then we are motivated. We’re motivated to act because we feel that there’s possibility that the outcome that we want might happen. If we don’t have hope, where do we find motivation?”

In the absence of it she said, there’s paralysis. 

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How to maintain hope

Hope isn’t always easy to hold on to, experts say. In the face of something like persistent racism, for example, hope can feel elusive and at times even illogical.

“In the context of coronavirus, the discriminations, all the inequities in society, it’s something that is definitely more difficult in these circumstances for some individuals to maintain,” Gallagher said. “When there are so many things we can’t fully control, hope becomes an issue.” 

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Psychologists: How to cope with uncertainty

That feeling of being overwhelmed, psychologists say, can be mitigated by shifting attention from the big picture to the things people can control.

“If you can’t completely fix COVID, what can you do in the short term to make things better for your family? What can you do so that even with corruption, you can help figure out how you and members of your community can vote?” Gallagher said.

Colier said gratitude also is an important component of maintaining hope. It may not solve societal problems, but you can still be happy that you got your child to brush their teeth twice in one day. That you got them to smile once. That for five minutes, you were completely present. 

“Gratitude and appreciation end up stoking this fire of a larger hope. And those are well within our control,” she said. “Make it very much in this moment. What can I hope for? And what can I do towards that? If we feel disempowered, we lean into hopelessness.”

When hope feels elusive

There’s no shame in struggling to hope, psychologists say. It’s not a personal failure to feel as though a better future is elusive. Taking expectations too far, they say, can border on naivete, and can start to seem like false hope.

But even if someone doesn’t feel their desired outcome is likely, Colier said, it’s important to continue to believe that it’s possible. 

“We don’t have to think about hope in this grand macro sense that things will all work out. Maybe that’s what’s not possible. But leave room for the unknown,” she said. “We don’t want to get lost in this place of, ‘it will never happen,’ because then what does that do? That takes away my taking the next right action. And sometimes that’s all we can do.”

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