What Is Hope, And Why Is It Important? (Positive Psychology)

When the young pair began their life together, they were full of hope.

That sentence above perfectly captures the essence of hope,

Hope is an optimistic frame of mind. In hoping, we expect good things to happen in our lives or in the world around us. To hope is “to cherish a desire with positive anticipation.”

But how do we find hope in life when all is lost? Why is it important to keep our hopes alive?

What is hope?

Hope is a desire with a belief about something good to happen. In general, hope means a positive wish for things to improve for the better, and to have a positive expectation for a better future. To hope means we want an outcome that will improve our life.

Hope is a desire that has little certainty, but a strong belief in the possibility of its coming true. Simply said, hope is a desire with great expectations but little sureness.

Hope makes the present difficulties bearable. Being hopeful means we wish to continue forward with a positive expectation of the future.

Hope reminds you that things will get better, but until then, you must focus on the steps and take action (one step at a time) to make hope work.

Hope in psychology may be defined as:

The degree to which an adolescent believes that a personal tomorrow exists; this belief spans four hierarchical levels proceeding from lower to higher levels of believing:

  1. Forced effort: the degree to which an adolescent tries to take on a more positive view, artificially.
  2. Personal possibilities: the extent to which an adolescent believes that second chances for the self may exist.
  3. Expectation of a better tomorrow: the degree to which an adolescent has a positive, though non-specific, future orientation.
  4. Anticipation of a personal future: the extent to which an adolescent identifies specific and positive personal future possibilities.
Hope = Desire + Belief

Why Is Hope Important In Life

Why should we humans hope at all?

Hope is an important part of every human being’s life and an essential part of being human. Hope helps us define what we want for our future. It sees possibilities where none exist; it propels us to move toward a better future for ourselves and others around us.

Hope is often a central protagonist in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives.

When you get down to it, you understand that hope doesn’t come with any promise of certainty. No, it’s futile to imagine that once we bear hope, it will spring to life, for sure, like magic.

Perhaps, because of that, when the last hope is stolen from us, we also lose the last genuine smile. Without hope, from then on in this life of ours, we can only manage to paint fake happiness on our faces.

Within the core of hope lies a strong belief.

In a way, hope is an antidote to our ‘hyper-logical’ forebrain.

The American Psychology Association, one of the most influential organizations in human psychology, found in a study that the children who grew up in poverty and succeeded later in life had one thing in common: hope.

Dr. Valerie Maholmes, who worked on the study, said that hope requires “planning, motivation, and determination” to achieve it.

Hope builds a bridge between the present and the future. And once we have a vision of what good things are to happen, the idea itself makes us feel better and happier.

Having hope is important for the act of being human itself. Dr. Judith Rich writes: “Hope is a match in a dark tunnel, a moment of light, just enough to reveal the path ahead and ultimately the way out.”

And Paul Doran contends:

Hope is a mixed bag of aspiration, desire, expectation, optimism, trust and belief. Hope allows us to imagine even slim possibilities. Hope embraces the future as unwritten and only retrospectively can a hope be seen as a pipe dream, vain hope or false hope. In dire situations, we can hope beyond hope, hope against hope, see a glimmer of hope.

What Are The Health Benefits of Hope

Hope and happiness are intertwined.

An analysis of responses from 360 undergraduates showed that hope, extroversion, and social support were linked significantly with happiness. Moreover, hope happened to mediate the link between extroversion and happiness, and social support and happiness.

Research shows people who score high on hope have better psychological health. That translates into lower levels of depression and anxiety, and higher levels of happiness and well-being.

High-hope people have been shown to cope better with burn injuries, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer.

In college students, a study showed, that hope can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another study among college-goers showed that more hopeful students showed greater all-around success, and more of them finished their graduation.

Not only that, people with better abilities to hope cope better with burns and spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and even cancer. They perform better in sports and academics.

Hope can help us manage stress and cope with adversity.

A Polish study found hope may increase the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for people with psychosis.

Findings from a study suggest hope may be an important factor to help individuals manage potential threats to self-esteem in the experience of early-stage dementia.

Hope can even help one fight the fear of death. A study found religious hope may help people cope with feelings of death anxiety.

Hope allows us to approach problems with a positive mindset aiming at success, increasing the chances for us to accomplish our goals.

Hope Science Myth

Barbara L. Fredrickson, head researcher at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (PEP Lab) at the University of North Carolina and author of Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive, wrote in Psychology Today:

Hope is not the typical form of positivity that we know of; rather, it comes into play when our circumstances are dire… when fear, hopelessness or despair seem just as likely.

Fredrickson was echoing the elements of hope from Barack Obama’s July 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in which he said:

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

Positive Psychology of Hope


Hope in positive psychology is an overall perception that goals can be attained with beliefs and efforts. To hope means to have the agency and the pathways to go after the desired goals.

Positive psychology sees hope in terms of positive future expectations. However, the nature of hope varies from person to person. Hope is not static but evolves as circumstances change, and individuals rework their expectations.

Shane Lopez, the late positive psychologist, studied and researched hope extensively. He was a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the International Positive Psychology Association.

Lopez felt that hope is…

the golden mean between euphoria and fear… a feeling where transcendence meets reason and caution meets passion.

Hope is also a desired trait of leadership. Interviewing a random sample of 10,000+ people, Gallup Organization researchers revealed people wanted their leaders to meet these 4 psychological needs (Rath, T. & Conchie, B., 2009):

  1. Stability
  2. Trust
  3. Compassion
  4. Hope

Hope Theory: The Will And The Ways of Hope

Charles “Rick” Snyder, the M. Erik Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who passed away in 2006, proposed and developed the hope theory.

In his lifetime, he published six books on hope theory (one of them, Handbook of Hope), and wrote 262 articles about the impact of hope in different facets of life.

Professor Snyder was fond of saying,

If you can’t laugh at yourself, you have missed the biggest joke of all.

Snyder’s Hope Theory brings scientific rigor to the age-old expression “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He argued that there are 3 things that come together to create hopeful thinking:

  1. Goals—Finding meaningful and realistic goals is the first part. Aristotle defined goals as “action caused by purpose”.
  2. Pathways—Finding ways (pathways) to fulfill your goals. ‘Pathways thinking’ is understanding that one thing can lead to another.
  3. Agency—Belief and determination that you can change yourself, overcome obstacles, and achieve your goals. ‘Agency thinking’ is believing that you can make things happen.

To Hope is to have both the Will (Agency) and the Ways (Pathways) to go after desired Goals.

Hope Experiment: Scientific Ice-Bucket Challenge

The late professor Christopher Peterson, the author of A Primer In Positive Psychology, once wrote about an interesting experiment on how hope increases our tolerance to pain in a popular post:

In an interesting experiment, Carla Berg, Rick Snyder, and Nancy Hamilton (2008) used guided imagery in what they called a Hope Induction. For about 15 minutes, research participants were asked to think of an important goal and to imagine how they might achieve it.

A comparison condition asked participants to read a home organization book for 15 minutes. All participants were then asked to immerse their non-dominant hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could (up to five minutes). This is a standard measure of pain tolerance, and it is painful but not harmful.

Participants receiving the brief hope induction kept their hand immersed for about 150 seconds, whereas those in the comparison condition kept their hand immersed for about 90 seconds.

The experiment found that high-hope participants tolerated the pain almost twice as long as low-hope persons.

Pandora’s Box: The Myth of Hope

Pandora and Her Box of Hope

Created from clay, Pandora was the very first woman according to Greek mythology. Pandora was a gift to Epimetheus from the gods of Olympia.

Zeus gave her a box as a wedding gift, with the strict instruction to never open it.

However, Pandora did open the box out of curiosity. And in a whiff, all the evils that Zeus had locked inside — greed, strife, despair, corruption, agony, death, and the ilk — escaped into the world, bringing misfortunes to the humans.

Frightened at what she had done, she shut the lid close. But by the time she could close it, everything that was ill had escaped.

Only one thing remained inside: Hope.

If Hope stayed imprisoned in the jar, did it mean that human existence was fated to utter hopelessness? Or does Hope ever get another chance to leave Pandora’s box?

As Pandora sat beside the box, with deep remorse, she heard a fine whisper: “Let me out!”

Though terrified at first to release more trouble into the world, she finally decided that it couldn’t do any more harm than was already done. So, she opened the box again — and out flew “a brightly winged creature!” Hope!

Hesiod, who is often called the “father of Greek didactic poetry”, in his poem, ‘Works and Days’ (700 BCE), describes Pandora and her box:

Only Hope was left within her unbreakable house,
she remained under the lip of the jar, and did not
fly away. Before (she could), Pandora replaced the
lid of the jar. This was the will of aegis-bearing
Zeus the Cloudgatherer.

Two questions arise:

  1. If Hope was so good, why was she in the box in the first place?
  2. If it was bad, why couldn’t it escape before the lid was closed?

Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, and critic of culture, in Human All Too Human (1878), explaining the paradox above, argued that Hope was in fact an ill in itself.

Nietzsche wrote:

Zeus did not wish man, however much he might be tormented by the other evils, to fling away his life, but to go on letting himself be tormented again and again. Therefore he gives Man hope; in reality it is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of Man.

American modern philosopher Richard McKay Rorty, however, held that hope serves as a promise or reason for expecting a better future, and without hope, a change is spiritually inconceivable.

Final Words: I Hope You Dance

We close this with a beautiful Grammy-winning song from 2001 by the country music singer Lee Ann Womack: I Hope You Dance. She said of the song in an interview with Billboard,

Certainly, it can represent everything a parent hopes for their child, but it can also be for a relationship that’s ending as a fond wish for the other person’s happiness or for someone graduating, having a baby, or embarking on a new path.

Lee Ann Womack - I Hope You Dance (Official Music Video)

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How can you be hopeful the world around you is disheartening? Read this helpful article: Finding Hope In Life When Sad And Depressed.

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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 popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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