By Jacqueline S. Mattis, Rutgers University-Newark
The raging coronavirus pandemic, as well as political turbulence and uncertainty, have overwhelmed many of us.
Since almost the beginning of 2020, people have faced dire prospects as illness, death, isolation, and job loss have become undesirable parts of our reality. On Wednesday, many of us watched in horror and despair as insurgents stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Indeed, all this time, both the dark and light sides of human nature were evident, as many people showed extraordinary compassion and courage when others commit acts of violence, self-interest, or greed.
As a scientist whose work focuses on the positive psychology of people facing challenges, I am deeply aware that if there ever was time, there is time to talk about hope.
Hope versus optimism
First, let’s understand what hope is. Many people mistake optimism for hope.
Charles R. Snyder, author of “The Psychology of Hope,” defined hope as the tendency to see desired goals as possible and achieve those goals with “agency thinking,” a belief that you or others have the ability to achieve the goals to reach . He also defined hope as “ways of thinking,” a focus on mapping routes and plans to achieve those goals.
Optimism is different. Psychologist Charles Carver defines optimism as a general expectation that good things will happen in the future. Optimists tend to seek the positive, sometimes denying or avoiding negative information. In sum, optimism is about expecting good things; Hope is about how we plan and act to get what we want.
Here are five key strategies for cultivating hope during these troubled times:
1. Do something – start with goals
Hopeful people do not wish – they introduce themselves and act. You set clear, achievable goals and make a clear plan. They believe in their agency – that is, their ability to get the results. They realize that their path will be marked by stress, roadblocks, and failure. According to psychologists like Snyder and others, hopeful people can “anticipate” these barriers and “choose” the right “paths”.
Hopeful people continue to adapt. When their hopes are thwarted, they are more likely to focus on doing things to achieve their goals.
Psychologist Eddie Tong writes, “Hopeful people tend to believe that the desired goals are achievable even when personal resources are exhausted.” In other words, people of hope persist even when the prospects may not be as favorable.
There are important indications that believing that you are able to achieve your goals may be more important to hope than knowing how to achieve those goals.
2. Use the power of uncertainty
Several researchers have argued that in order for hope to arise, the individual must recognize the “possibility of success”.
Research shows that many uncertainties in life can help people develop hope in difficult times. For example, a 2017 study showed that parents of children diagnosed with multiple sclerosis took advantage of the fact that so little is known about the condition in childhood to nurture and maintain their sense of hope. Because multiple sclerosis is so difficult to accurately diagnose in childhood and the prognosis is so varied, the possibility existed that their children were misdiagnosed and allowed them to recover and lead normal lives.
All in all, an uncertain future holds many possibilities. So insecurity is not a cause for paralysis – it is a cause for hope.
3. Manage your attention
Hopeful and optimistic people show similarities and differences in the types of emotional stimuli they look out for in the world.
For example, psychologist Lucas Kelberer and colleagues found that optimists tended to seek positive images like that of happy people and to avoid images of people who appear depressed.
Hopeful people weren’t necessarily looking for emotionally positive information. However, those with great hope spent less time paying attention to emotionally sad or threatening information.
In a world where we are overwhelmed with options for what we read, see, and hear, we may not need to look for positive information to maintain hope, but we need to avoid negative images and messages.
4. Search for a community. Don’t go alone
Hope is hard to take in isolation. Research shows that people working to bring about social change, especially anti-poverty activists, relationships and community activists, have been the source of hope and a belief that they will keep fighting.
Connecting with others allowed activists to feel responsible and realize that their work was important and that they were part of something bigger than themselves.
Relationships are important, but health research also suggests that maintaining hope depends in part on the particular business we run. For example, parents of chronically ill children often maintained hope by withdrawing from or avoiding interactions with negative people who challenged their efforts to achieve positive goals. We can remain hopeful when we connect with others who hold us accountable and remind us why our struggles are important.
5. Look at the evidence
Hope also requires trust. Hopeful people trust data, especially the evidence of history. Research shows, for example, that anti-poverty activists drew hope because they knew that people who formed a resistance could historically make change.
To cultivate and maintain hope, we must gather evidence from our own lives, our history, and the world at large, and use that evidence as a guide in our plans, paths, and actions.
Hope also requires that we learn to use this data to effectively calibrate progress – no matter how small.
Jacqueline S. Mattis, Faculty Dean at Rutgers University – Newark
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.