“There is nothing so cruel in this world as the desolation of having nothing to hope for.” — Haruki Murakami
Hope is a critically important part of life, though hopelessness is often a necessary evil.
Feeling hopeless is a natural reaction to many life experiences, but it can have a serious influence on one’s thoughts, feelings, and view of self and others, even pushing people to their deaths.
Around the globe, hopelessness is a prominent cause and result of deliberate self-harm, ideas of suicide, and suicide.
What is hopelessness?
Hopelessness is a feeling characterized by the absence or insufficiency of hope (Donncha, Ross, 2011). Hopelessness is often accompanied by self-hatred, aimlessness, pessimism, and suicidal ideations and tendencies. It is frequently a result of a cause of other mental illnesses.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines hopelessness as the feeling that one will not experience positive emotions or an improvement in one’s condition.
Hopelessness has been defined as negative expectations toward oneself and the future. — Kazdin, Rodgers, & Colbus, 1986
How do you measure hopelessness?
Hopelessness is commonly measured by the Beck Hopelessness Scale (BHS), which was created by Beck Weissman, Lester, & Trexler, in 1974.
The Beck Hopelessness Scale (BHS) is a 20-item self-report survey that measures three major aspects of hopelessness: future feelings, motivation loss, and expectations. The test, intended for persons from 17 to 80, assesses the extent to which respondents are pessimistic about the future.
It could be used to predict suicidal risk in depressed people who have attempted suicide. The results must be used and interpreted by only clinically trained professionals.
What is a hopeless personality?
A hopeless personality is characterized by an absence of optimism, hope, and passion. Such persons have very little expectation for positive things to happen in the future. Aaron Beck introduced hopelessness as a personality feature characterized by negative emotions, an unrealistic negative attitude toward the future, and loss of pleasure in life.
Men have a higher incidence of hopelessness than women. This was more pronounced in less educated, divorced, rural, and relatively poor men.
When people feel hopeless, they become indifferent to both their internal and external environment. They find it hard to concretize their plans, realize alternate solutions to problems, and imagine that someone could help them find solutions to their issues.
According to the “Hopelessness Theory of Depression” by Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989, hopeless people grow a negative view of themselves, often seeing themselves as worthless.
This negative self-perception grows stronger with time and starts to encompass negative expectations for the future. In time, this gives in to self-harming behaviors.
Interestingly, the hopelessness theory was developed as a response to limitations in Seligman’s (1972) “Learned Helplessness” (read about Seligman’s highly interesting experiment on dogs) theory of depression.
“I know why people die of hopelessness. It comes on like a thick blanket, covering your thoughts, your confidence, creeping into your mind and filling the corners. I lie in the dark, suffocating under horrible despair, wishing I were dead. I sleep, then wake, then sleep. The sleep is filled with monstrous dreams that attack, cry out, and vanish, leaving me once more awake and staring into the darkness. Help me! My mind is screaming, but there is no one to hear.” — Joan Lowery Nixon
What is the effect of hopelessness?
Hopelessness can affect mental health and may lead to persistent low mood, anhedonia (when nothing feels pleasurable anymore), anxiety, posttraumatic stress, bipolar, depression, eating disorders, substance dependency, self-harm, and suicide. This study showed that patients with breast cancer and benign breast disease are at risk of hopelessness.
Hopelessness has links to ideas of suicide and repeated instances of self-harming. In a study on depressed persons who were 50 years or older, there was a strong relationship between hopelessness and suicide ideation (Britton, Duberstein, 2008).
It impairs a person’s capacity to perceive themselves (self-perception — the image we hold of ourselves and our qualities), their surroundings, and other people. (Ali & Soomar, Journal of Neurology and Neuroscience, 2019).
Hopelessness has also been suggested as a predictor of loneliness, especially in older adults (Juan, Iraida, 2022).
People feeling hopeless often make statements like:
- I’m out of options.
- Nobody can help me.
- I feel like giving up.
- I don’t have a future.
- It is already too late.
- I will never again be happy.
- My situation will never improve.
- What’s the use of doing anything?
- What are the types of hopelessness?
What are the types of hopelessness?
According to Scioli and Biller, there are nine types of hopelessness, and they all seem to originate from the inability to meet certain vital needs in your life:
- Alienation (attachment hopes) – feeling that others have forgotten about you.
- Forsakenness (attachment and survival hopes) – feeling that others have abandoned you when you needed them the most.
- Lack of inspiration (attachment and mastery hopes) – feeling that you are devoid of all creativity and motivation to do anything useful.
- Powerlessness (mastery hopes) – feeling that your life and actions have no influence on the world.
- Oppression (attachment and mastery hopes) – feeling that you are treated unfairly and unequally, and are victimized by racism and sexism.
- Limitedness (mastery and survival hopes) – feeling that you don’t have enough resources, money, or skills to fulfill your goals.
- Doom (survival hopes) – feeling that you are unlucky in life, condemned to suffer negative outcomes, and perhaps die.
- Captivity (survival and attachment hopes) – feeling that you are trapped at some point in your life (like a toxic relationship) and cannot free yourself or do as you wish.
- Helplessness (survival and mastery hopes) – feeling that you are helpless by yourself to do anything.
What causes a sense of hopelessness?
The most common causes of hopelessness are long-term illnesses and physical disorders that limit one’s activities and movement. Depression can cause and exacerbate hopelessness and is nearly a defining feature of severe major depression. Some social factors that can cause hopelessness include loss of so-called dignity, stigmatization, unemployment, family conflicts and issues, and financial constraints.
Though hopelessness is seen in various depressive illnesses, the worst part is its implication in suicide attempts and completed suicides. Studies indicate it is more closely associated with suicide than depression.
How do you control hopelessness?
Overcoming hopelessness is possible. Here are some helpful tips to overcome hopelessness:
- Seek expert help. A therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you open up about your troubling issues and negative thought patterns, and teach you how to challenge them and apply the modified insights in your daily life. A trauma-informed care practitioner can help resolve your past traumas.
- Challenge and change your distorted patterns of thinking. Force yourself to dispute thoughts like nobody cares about you or everybody who meets you wants to get some favor or money out of you. Actively seek out supportive relationships, especially friendships, notwithstanding your fears.
- Focus on the present moment instead of future outcomes. Practice mindfulness meditation. Find support groups who have a similar illness as you. A simple exercise like letting the water run over your hands while you notice its temperature and flow. You can focus on your breathing as you inhale, exhale, and hold your breath for a count of 5 (boxed breathing).
- Try “somatic therapy” to help process the physical effects of your trauma. It involves practicing body-focused exercises and revisiting the trauma without recalling specific events and emotions. It helps you develop a mind-body connection and regulate your emotions via body movements, like dancing or stretching.
- Learn to handle criticism like a pro. Stop believing everything that everyone says about you. Let go of your toxic relationships. Get away from people who blame you for your condition and do not help you grow out of your hopelessness.
We strongly advise that if you have been feeling hopeless for some time, and thinking that your life has no meaning or purpose, then urgently seek the help of mental health professional to address your symptoms.
The ills of hopelessness are many, especially those caused by unresolved trauma.
Nearly 1 billion people live with a mental disorder and in low-income countries, more than 75% of people with the disorder do not receive treatment. Every 40 seconds, a person dies by suicide. About 50% of mental health disorders start by the age of 14.— Rialda Kovacevic, MD MPH, World Bank, 2021
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is the leading cause of death in adolescent girls worldwide. And according to the American College of Physicians (ACP), hopelessness and depression are the biggest predictors of suicide.
Bringing hope into the lives of teenage girls can help save many of them.
“Hope is the bedrock of getting out of suicidal states.” — Jon G. Allen, The Menninger Clinic, 2013
When the future is uncertain for a long time, people abandon hope, engage in high-risk behavior like substance abuse, and react violently to minor triggers.
We must address hopelessness in a bigger way than is currently being done. There should be public awareness programs to bring “hopelessness” to the forefront and save many precious lives.
HopefulMinds says, “Hope is the most critical skill we can teach everyone if we want to end partner violence, sexual violence, weapon carrying at school, depression, suicide, anxiety, poverty, economic insecurity, homelessness, and more.”
Let’s remember that hope is teachable and learnable. And together, we can create a conversational space to raise hope among the hopeless.
- Further reading:
- The relation between bullying, victimization, and adolescents’ level of hopelessness (Journal of Adolescence, 2012)
- The Role of Hope in Buffering the Impact of Hopelessness on Suicidal Ideation (PLoS One, 2015)
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Hope is an expectation that is both desired and possible. Learn how to find hope in hard times and make it work.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, mindfulness, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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