Cultivating Hope

By Jamie Edwards, LCSW

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops – at all

– Emily Dickinson

From Star Wars to The Little Engine that Could, hope is a common theme in our culture. Yet it’s also one of those words that can be elusive to define. So what exactly is hope and why is it so important? And, how do we get it when we need it?

Hope is sometimes portrayed negatively in cynical times. It may be looked at as naïve or a one in a million chance. There’s a common phrase, “don’t get your hopes up,” that implies that disappointment is just around the corner from hope. However, recent research illustrates that hope lives up to its hype. In Role of Hope in Academic and Sport Achievement found in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Snyder et al (2002) followed college students over a six-year period, looking at how hope affected their performance. What they found was even when original ACT and GPA scores were controlled for, students who had an abundance of hope had a higher GPA and were more likely to complete their studies than their low hope counterparts. A second study by Snyder et al (2002), Hope and Academic Success in College from the Journal of Educational Psychology, focused on athletes and discovered hope was a better predictor of current GPA levels than past GPA levels. Yet another study, Hope, but not Optimism, Predicts Academic Performance of Law students Beyond Previous Academic Achievement in the Journal of Research in Personality, shows that hope, as compared to optimism, is a stronger predictor of law students’ grades, even more so than LSAT scores and past GPA levels. (Rand, Martin, and Shea, 2011).

Hope can be difficult to cultivate when we are being challenged in our lives. Maybe something has happened that we are perceiving as a mistake or a failure, maybe there has been some kind of loss in our lives, or maybe something simply did not go the way we desired. Hope is that much more important during these times as it starts connecting us to positivity through envisioning change. It doesn’t mean that we first can’t acknowledge disappointment and other feelings we have – in fact it’s probably good for us to give some space for this – however staying in that place will not help us move forward. Hope allows for change to take place, and if we concentrate our efforts on what we want that change to look like, we are that much closer to it being a reality.

So what makes hope possible? Hope is not just an emotion, but a cognitive process based on the idea that people are goal oriented. Snyder’s hope theory was developed on the hypothesis that there was more to hope than just people believing they can attain their goals. What was found is that two important elements are needed for hope: pathways and agency. Pathways is when we believe we can find a way to reach our goals. We don’t necessarily have to have a play by play game plan, but trusting we can figure it out is important. Agency is when we have the energy and motivation to reach them. For example, “I think I can,” “I know I can do this,” etc. Missing one of these two elements stifles hope. We can be motivated to get to Mars but have little to no understanding of the steps to get there, or we can know how to bake a cake from scratch but lack the drive to complete the task.

A goal may not be achievable as you first conceive it, but instead of abandoning it, look at tweaking it first. Based on hope theory, it can be helpful to look at your goals in terms of pathways and agency. Do you have pathways to achieve your goal? If yes, are those pathways realistic, or if no, is there a way you can discover the pathways needed to achieve your goal? Will you be able to harness the amount of energy needed to realistically achieve your goal? If you can’t answer these questions with a yes, you may decide it’s time to set that goal aside, however avoid the assumption that putting it aside for now means putting it aside forever as life is always subject to change.

Hope is one of those great tools that is always available to us. As Emily Dickenson writes in the above poem, it never stops. However, the trick is that we have to decide to use and cultivate hope; hope is a choice.