What Is Hope & Why Is It Important In Positive Psychology?

— Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy.

What is hope in positive psychology, and what are its benefits on your psychological and physical health? Can hope be a therapy to make you more resilient to adversity and help you live happier?

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, and then some. Positive psychology says when we hope, we don’t just expect good things to happen in our lives or in the world around us, we also build up a will to make those cherished desires real

So, hope is more than a positive outlook — it is an action-oriented strength of mind.

Hope gives us a reason to keep fighting while trusting that better days will come, despite the uncertain nature of our lives. That’s why we must keep our hopes alive when all is lost.

What is Hope in Positive Psychology?

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.

In general, hope is a positive wish for things to improve and a positive expectation for a better future. It is a desire with a belief that something good will happen.

However, in positive psychology, to hope means to wish and work for outcomes we desire, that will make our lives better.

So, in toto, to hope is to stay positive, expect a good future, and focus on working for that better future.

What this belief does is one of the best things about hope—it makes the present difficulties bearable.

What Is Hope (Positive Psychology)

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.

Therefore, while optimism is a positive desire with little certainty, hope makes sure that we take steps, however small the steps may be, to move toward the things we have a strong belief in.

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.

Hope: A Psychological Definition

Hope in psychology may be defined as the degree to which an adolescent believes that a personal tomorrow exists; this belief spans 4 hierarchical levels, from lower to higher levels of belief:

  1. Forced effort: the degree to which an adolescent tries to take on a more positive view, artificially. This level of hope is often characterized by a sense of detachment from reality, as the adolescent is trying to force themselves to believe something that they don’t truly believe.
  2. Personal possibilities: the extent to which an adolescent believes that second chances for the self may exist. This level of hope is marked by a sense of openness to new possibilities, even if the person has experienced setbacks in the past.
  3. Expectations of a better tomorrow: the degree to which an adolescent has a positive, though non-specific, future orientation. This level typifies a general sense of optimism about the future, even if the person doesn’t have specific plans or goals.
  4. Anticipation of a personal future: the extent to which an adolescent identifies specific and positive personal future possibilities. This level of hope includes a clear vision for the future and a belief that the adolescent is capable of achieving their goals.

Snyder (2009) defined hope as a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of being successful in two things: the first one is agency (goal-directed energy) and the second one is pathways (planning to meet goals).

So, hope can also be defined as a perceived ability to find pathways to our desired goal, and motivate ourselves via agency to use those pathways.

What is hope in positive psychology

Hope Theory: The Will And The Ways of Hope

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

The Hope Theory in positive psychology brings scientific rigor to the age-old expression, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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 suggested there are 3 things that come together to create hopefulness:

  1. Goals thinking—First, we need goals that are meaningful and realistic. Goals thinking is the clear conceptualization of our valuable goals. Aristotle defined goals as “action caused by purpose.”
  2. Pathways thinking—Second, we need to find ways (pathways) to fulfill our goals. Pathways thinking is the capacity to develop specific strategies to reach those goals. It is the understanding that one thing can lead to another.
  3. Agency thinking—Third, we need to believe and be determined that we can change ourselves, overcome obstacles, and achieve our goals. Agency thinking is the ability to initiate and sustain the motivation to pursue our goals and dreams. It is believing that we can make things happen.

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

Hope | Positive Psychology | Sunble Naz | Psychology for All
Hope In Positive Psychology – Sunble Naz

What is the Importance of Having Hope?

Hope is important because it can help us to cope with difficult times, achieve our goals, live a more fulfilling life, and reduce the risks of mental despair.

  • Coping with difficult times: Hope can help us stay positive and motivated when facing challenges. It can also help us find meaning in our experiences, and to believe that things will eventually get better. High-hope people have been shown to cope better with burn injuries, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer.
  • Achieving our goals: Hope can help us set realistic goals and work towards achieving them. It can also help us persist with our efforts in the face of setbacks. People with high levels of hope are more likely to be resilient in the face of adversity and more likely to achieve their goals.
  • Living a more fulfilling life: Hope can help us find joy in life, even when things are tough. It can also help us connect with others and make a difference in the world.
  • Avoiding mental despair: People with low levels of hope are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. 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.

Having hope is an essential part of being human. It gives us the motivation to create a better future. It allows us to look beyond what exists, and find potential and promise in what lies ahead.

Hope is often a central protagonist in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. When you get down to it, you understand that 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.

Hope in psychology

What Do You Benefit From Having Hope?

Hope can offer us these benefits:

  1. More resilience in the face of adversity: Hopeful people are better able to cope with stress and setbacks. They are more likely to see challenges as opportunities for growth, and they are less likely to give up in the face of difficulty.
  2. Better physical health: Hopeful people tend to have healthier lifestyles. They are more likely to exercise, eat healthy foods, and get enough sleep. They are also less likely to smoke or drink alcohol to excess.
  3. Less stress and anxiety: Hopeful people are better able to manage stress and anxiety. They are more likely to use positive coping mechanisms, such as relaxation techniques and problem-solving.
  4. Enhanced cognitive function: Hopeful people tend to have better cognitive functions. They are more likely to have better memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
  5. Increased motivation and goal-directed behavior: Hopeful people are more likely to set goals and work towards achieving them. They are also more likely to persist in the face of challenges.
  6. Better social relationships: Hopeful people tend to have better social relationships. They are more likely to be supportive and caring friends and family members.
  7. Greater satisfaction with life: Hopeful people tend to be more satisfied with their lives. They are more likely to feel happy, content, and fulfilled.
  8. Live longer: Hopeful people tend to live longer. They are less likely to die from premature causes, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
  9. More creativity: Hopeful people tend to be more creative. They are more likely to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems.
  10. High Academic and Work Performance: Hopeful individuals often perform better in academic and work settings. Their optimism and forward-looking mindset can lead to increased productivity, better problem-solving abilities, and a greater willingness to take on and overcome challenges.
  11. Better Emotional Health: Hope can contribute to better emotional health. Hopeful people tend to experience lower levels of depression and are better equipped to manage negative emotions. They also tend to have higher self-esteem and self-confidence.
  12. More Capacity for Empathy and Compassion: Hopeful individuals often show a greater capacity for empathy and compassion. Their positive outlook can extend to their interactions with others, fostering understanding and supportive relationships.
  13. Promotes Positive Lifestyle Changes: Hope can motivate individuals to make positive changes in their lives, such as seeking help for mental health issues, quitting smoking, or pursuing a new career. This is because hope can make people believe in the possibility of a better future, encouraging them to take steps toward it.
  14. Greater Spiritual Well-being: For some, hope can contribute to a sense of spiritual well-being. It can provide comfort, peace, and a sense of purpose, particularly during challenging times.

Hope And Happiness: Deep Connections

Hope and happiness are deeply interconnected, forming a symbiotic relationship that enhances our overall well-being.

  • An analysis of responses from 360 undergraduate students revealed that hope, extroversion, and social support were linked significantly with happiness. Interestingly, hope served as a mediator, bridging the connection between extroversion, social support, and happiness.
  • Research on college students shows hope can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Another study among college-goers found that those with high hopes had more success and a higher chance of completing graduation.

Hope also tends the person to excel in sports and academics.

Hope serves as a potent tool in managing stress and navigating adversity. A Polish study discovered that hope could enhance the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs for individuals with psychosis.

This research suggests that hope plays a crucial role in helping individuals manage potential threats to self-esteem, particularly in early-stage dementia.

The power of hope extends beyond mental well-being.

People with a high capacity for hope cope better when dealing with severe physical conditions such as burns, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and even cancer.

Hope can also reduce the fear of death. This study found that religious hope could help individuals cope with death anxiety.

[Memento mori: What thoughts of our own death could teach us about living?]

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

Barbara L. Fredrickson, the leading 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’s words resonate with the sentiments expressed by Barack Obama in his July 2004 speech, where he spoke of “Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

Hope vs. Optimism

Optimism is a positive attitude about a future event where we expect life to work out well and as expected.

Hope is more realistic than optimism, where we recognize that life may not work out as planned, but we still have a positive expectancy of things coming out fine.

A wish is a passive general want or desire, whereas hope is an active process, a commitment to seek future outcomes.

Hope comes with great expectations, but has no guarantee of its coming true. However, there is a way to increase the certainty of hope: including disciplined effort/action.

Desire without action is just wishful thinking, while the right way to hope involves a wish, a desire, and sustained, goal-directed action.

Types of Hope

  • Realistic Hope: Realistic hope is actually a hope for an outcome that is reasonable and probable (Wiles, Cott, & Gibson, 2008). A hope based on realistic expectations, not on unexamined wishes, is more achievable, fulfilling, and worthwhile.
  • Chosen Hope: Hope is critical to the management of despair, especially when factors such as grief, fear, and concerns about loved ones are contributing to our hopelessness. Garrard & Wrigley (2009) suggested that hope for even the most restricted range of goals within the limits of life is essential to the regulation of negative emotions.
  • Transcendent Hope: Transcendent hope goes beyond the physical and material world. It is often associated with spiritual beliefs and the idea that there is a higher purpose or meaning to life. This type of hope can be a source of comfort and strength, especially during times of crisis or loss.
  • Patient hope: This is the belief that everything will work out well in the end, even if it takes a long time. This is often seen in people who have experienced difficult circumstances but have not given up hope. A person who is struggling with a chronic illness may have patient hope that they will eventually find a cure.
  • Generalized hope: This is the belief that good things will happen, even if there is no specific reason to believe that they will. This is often seen in people who are optimistic by nature, or who have experienced positive experiences in the past. Someone who went through a breakup may hope that they will find love again someday.
  • Universal hope: This is the belief that there is a greater good in the world, even if it is not always visible. This is often seen in people who have a strong faith, or who believe in the power of love and compassion.

Hope Therapy

Hope therapy is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients develop a more hopeful outlook on life. It is based on the understanding that hope is not just a feeling, but a dynamic cognitive process. The quote you provided describes the three main components of hope therapy:

  1. Conceptualizing Clear Goals: The first step in hope therapy involves helping clients identify and clarify their goals. This process can provide a sense of direction and purpose. It’s about understanding what the client wants to achieve, whether it’s related to their personal life, career, health, or other areas. Clear goals provide a target for hopeful thinking.
  2. Producing Multiple Pathways to Goal Attainment: Once goals have been set, hope therapy encourages clients to develop multiple strategies or pathways to achieve these goals. This step is crucial because it helps clients see that there are many ways to reach their goals, which can foster a sense of hope and possibility. If one path doesn’t work, there are other paths to explore.
  3. Reframing Barriers as Challenges to be Overcome: Inevitably, clients will encounter obstacles on their path to achieving their goals. Hope therapy helps clients view these obstacles not as insurmountable barriers, but as challenges that can be overcome. This reframing can empower clients, enhancing their resilience and promoting a more hopeful outlook.

Hope Experiment: Scientific Ice-Bucket Challenge

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

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.

Pandora’s Box: The Myth of Hope

Pandora and Her Box 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 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.

However, American modern philosopher Richard McKay Rorty 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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√ Also Read: How to be hopeful in a hopeless world?

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