What comes to mind when you think about the word hope? For me, it’s wall art and mugs; “hope” written in cursive, accompanied by words like faith, love, and dream. It is not a positive association. As much as I love to feel inspired, I am not a fan of inspirational décor. It doesn’t suit my taste, and more importantly, I think it dilutes the meaning of words that are actually profound concepts. Reclaiming and connecting with the meaning of the word hope, requires a reintroduction.
We often say we “feel” hopeful, but hope is not actually an emotion. It is a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing that we have what it takes to meet those goals.
Hope Theory emerged largely through the work of psychologist C.R. Snyder in the 1990’s. Snyder began looking at why people make excuses for their mistakes and started viewing hope as the counterpoint to excuse-making. After noticing this relationship, Snyder went on to develop his theory on hope.
Hope is made up of a trifecta of goals, pathways, and agency.
Hope Happens When:
1) You know where you want to go (goals)
Without a goal, there is no direction. We all have goals, they just might not be clearly defined. There is a lot of work out there on the topic of goals, some of which you can find here. Setting and celebrating small goals can help cultivate a more hopeful outlook by giving one the opportunity to build confidence in their ability to reach their goals.
2) You have ideas on how to get there (pathway)
If you have goals but have no clue on how to move towards them, then they feel unachievable and do not spark hope. The ability to take steps towards goals, be resilient enough to move past challenges, and find new routes when needed, is a vital component of hope. Without a visible path, we are quick to find excuses for our lack of success and can end up feeling powerless- or hopeless.
3) You believe in yourself (agency)
This is where many of us get stuck. We may see the goal and the path but doubt our own ability to navigate that path. Our hopes morph into distant dreams because we don’t think we have what it takes to make them a reality. Determination and tolerance for disappointment are vital pieces of personal agency. Without these traits, we will keep reinforcing the idea that we are not good enough to reach our goals, which can turn into a state of learned helplessness.
When people start to understand (or falsely believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they often stop trying to change their situation. This is different than choosing to surrender to a situation with a belief that you will make it out the other side. In this state of mind, a person believes that nothing they do or think will make a difference.
This phenomenon is called learned helplessness because it is not an innate trait. No one is born believing that they have no control over what happens to them. It is a learned behavior, conditioned through experience.
Learned helplessness has been found to be correlated with depression, and can be looked at as an extreme form of hopelessness.
Just like helplessness can be learned through experience, so can hopefulness. While one may be born with personality traits that naturally foster more hopeful thinking, anyone can learn to think in more hope-promoting ways.
The popularity of the quote “We can do hard things” from Glennon Doyle’s book Untamed, shows that many of us want to feel more agency. We are actively dismissing the idea that everything should be fast, fun, and easy. Snyders’ work on hope shows that the most hopeful people put considerable value on persistence and don’t shy away from hard things.
The most hopeful among us don’t just trust that things will work out, we also take action. Part of our sense of hope comes from our belief that we can change things. When we know that a situation is out of our control, a hopeful attitude makes us believe we have the strength to handle the outcome.
The Alcoholics Anonymous Serenity Prayer comes to mind.
“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”
The wisdom to know the difference is key. As someone who studies the concept of wisdom, I can tell you that the ability to know when to act versus when to lean into uncertainty and surrender are major components of what makes a person wise.
Belief in the Self is the Heart of Hope and Wisdom
When I began writing this I didn’t set out to prove that hope and wisdom are intertwined, but now I see that they are. I have previously written about wisdom as a skill; a way to transform knowledge and insight into action. To use wisdom as a skill, one must believe that they have the power to effect change- they must be hopeful rather than helpless. It is that feeling of power that carries us through doubt and fear and gives us a sense of agency over our lives.
While I would love to give you the “7 Steps to Become More Hopeful,” the reality is that hope is learned by doing hard things. The experience of small successes helps us to build feelings of agency and belief in ourselves so that we have more and more faith in our ability to act. But as we all know, sometimes things don’t go our way.
I think hope is not only about goals, pathways, and agency, but also about the wisdom to know when to let go. We have all gotten more than a little practice with this during the pandemic. Sometimes your path is to surrender. Just like achieving small goals builds the belief in self, so does the experience of surrendering and making it out the other side.
I’m really not one to pray, but this little dive into hope really has given me a newfound appreciation for the Serenity Prayer and the deep wisdom contained within. You can do hard things, and you can tap into the wisdom to know when you need to let go of “doing.” Both of those paths will lead to more hope in your life, and that thought in itself is a hopeful proposition.
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW