Hope Fundamentals

As we establish on the Introductory and Types of Hope pages (and contrary to popular use of the term), Hope as we shall be discussing it is a positive behavioral and cognitive process made up of Optimism, Agency, and Pathways.  *If you’re curious about other ways of defining Hope, check out our Types of Hope page.

Hope = Optimism + Agency + Pathways

Note that Hope is NOT synonymous with Optimism. Rather, optimism is one of three components that make up ‘Hope.’This page will uncover the nature of Hope according to recent science, and give you the tools to understand this crucial element of life for you own well-being.

What Is Hope?

The scientific community has a wide range of ways to define Hope, and for good reason.  It has been debated for quite a long time whether Hope is an emotion, a cognitive state or process, a behavior, a personality trait, or an instinct.  To be fair, depending on how you look at it, Hope can qualify as all of these things.

The information we offer in this section is based on Hope research as we have it defined above: a positive behavioral and cognitive process.  We approach Hope as a process that can be used and honed as a skill.  This is not to say that some of the conclusions regarding Hope’s efficacy as a strategy toward meaning, happiness, and success are not supported by research that explores it (and Optimism) as a personality trait or emotion — we include these complementary points.

In everyday speech, you’ve likely used the word Hope how it is defined in popular dictionaries like Merriam Webster:

1a: desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment
b: someone or something on which hopes are centered
c: something desired or hoped for

Possible Implications of Hope as…
…an Emotion “Hope is a warm, positive feeling.” Could cause it to be considered as a temporary internal event that feels good but doesn’t have pragmatic power.
…a Cognitive State “Hope is a state of mind.” Could lead to attempting to cultivate it.
…a Behavior “Hope is something you do.” Could lead to attempting to practice it.
…a Personality Trait “She is a Hopeful person.” Could lead to believing it is something you are born with or not.
…an Instinct “We naturally Hope in trying times.” Could lead to seeing Hope as a survival mechanism.

Clearly, this does not match up with the definition we’re presenting.  The commonly used version of the word “hope” does not capture the rich complexity of the concept.  It already holds a great deal of weight in our cultures, and hopefully it will become more commonly used in its most practical and efficacious form.  The Merriam Webster definition of Hope, or rather the more colloquially accepted meaning of the term, is likely responsible for those folks who dismiss Hope as naive idealism.  This definition portrays Hope without process or pragmatism.  In this form it is as elusive as desire itself.

Popular Meaning of Hope

Hope = Desire for and expectation in fulfillment

Hope as it is used in Hope Theory

Hope = Optimism + Agency + Pathways

Perhaps based on an understanding of Hope as ‘desire accompanied by expectation in fulfillment’ you’ve used Hope interchangeably with Optimism.

Merriam Webster’s definition of Optimism:

1: a doctrine that this world is the best possible world
2: an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome

If you’ve been equating the terms, here’s a newsflash for you: Scientists have distinguished Optimism from Hope.

While Optimism is both an attitude toward the future and an explanatory style for events of the past and present (we’ll get into that with more detail below!), Hope is an engaged, action-oriented process that employs Optimism.

“The immediacy of return on your investment in the future is what sets hope apart from willpower, optimism, and wishing.”  – From Making Hope Happen by Shane Lopez, PH.D, Gallup Senior Scientist

*It should also be noted that much of the claims made in this section on Hope include research on Optimism studied independently from Hope as a whole.  These research conclusions can naturally be included in the discussion of Hope in that Hope encompasses Optimism.  However, in several cases, Hope has been shown to have a more direct influence on research outcomes in mental and physical health than Optimism has alone. 

You will notice this graphic in places where we want to indicate that the research being presented was focused on Optimism independently. 

In order to best understand Hope we must understand its components:

Optimism  +  Agency  +  Pathways

Optimism

What Kind of Optimist Are You?   Take our quiz to find out!

As we mentioned, Optimism is an explanatory style and an attitude towards the future- but what does that mean?  As an attitude toward the future, Optimism fulfills its colloquial definition: an expectation of a positive outcome.  As an explanatory style, Optimism is a way of interpreting adversity.  To better explain that we’ll have to review some fascinating history.

Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Theory

The pioneer of the positive psychology movement, Dr. Martin Seligman, began his journey towards the study of Optimism in the 1960s.  While working on an experiment that involved shocking dogs, he came up with the theory of Learned Helplessness. (Seligman and Maier, 1967)

Seligman and his colleagues were exploring how the dogs learned to associate things, and were doing this by lightly shocking the dogs whenever they rang a bell.  Eventually, the dogs were reacting as if being shocked even when they weren’t.  Next, the animals were put into a small contained space divided by a low wall that they could jump over.  The floor on the side they were placed on was electrified and would occasionally produce shocks, while the floor on the other side was not electrified.  The dogs who had been exposed to being shocked in the previous stage of the experiment, which had no option for them to escape the shocks, did not try to jump over the wall but instead laid down and continued to receive the shocks.  When the team of researchers performed the second half of the experiment with dogs who had not been conditioned by the shocks already, the dogs almost immediately jumped over the wall and escaped the shocks!

This video walks you step by step through Seligman’s experiment and conclusions.

Seligman explained this with Learned Helplessness: a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. (Oxford English Dictionary).  He theorized that the dogs that gave up had essentially been taught to give up by being shown in the earlier situation that they had no control over their circumstances.  The dogs without that experience had not learned that they were helpless and therefore put effort into escaping the shocks.

Learned Helplessness could show up in all aspects of your life, and doesn’t have to come about merely from traumatic experiences.

Learned Helplessness Examples
In dating Someone who has consistently gone on dead-end dates may condition themselves to believe that they will never find someone they connect with and stop trying, believing that the effort involved in dating isn’t worth it.
In pursuing a dream career Someone who has applied for their dream job and been consistently turned away may believe that it will never happen. Despite the fact that they have repeatedly pursued this job, the fact that they have consistently failed acts as proof that it isn’t worth trying again.
In raising children A parent who has continually disciplined a child for a specific behavior (such as sneaking out) but the behavior has continued, may believe that their efforts are ineffectual and they have no influence over their child’s behavior. They could give up attempting to stop their child from sneaking out.
In learning a new skill, such as the piano Learning an instrument doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Someone who struggles considerably on the front end and does not make measurable progress over an extended period of time can become discouraged and stop pursuing the skill.

In this video on Learned Helplessness, Dr. Charisse Nixon demonstrates the concept to her students by inducing it in them using a simple experiment.  Fun to watch!

Inspired by this discovery, Seligman decided to study the positive side of the coin- could we be conditioned to persist if we could be conditioned to give up?  Copious studies conducted by him and others since have established that this is the case.  This became the theory of Learned Optimism: that optimism and joy can be cultivated.  We get into the how of cultivating Optimism and Hope in this section.

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

Fast forward to 1:00 to bypass the introduction regarding the dog experiments and hear more about what Learned Optimism is.

Seligman distinguished Learned Helplessness from Learned Optimism in part by the mental frameworks that gave rise to them: Pessimism and Optimism.  He didn’t define these as simply expecting the worst or the best.  Rather, he defined them as habitual ways of explaining why something happens, known as Explanatory Styles.

Explanatory Styles

Explanatory Styles are ways of interpreting events based on Pervasiveness, Permanence, and Personalization.

Pervasiveness

How common/often does this occur?

Permanence

Is this event/state going to be temporary or last forever?

Personalization

Am I the cause of this event?

Someone with a Pessimistic Explanatory Style interprets adversity (negative experiences) as PERVASIVE, PERMANENT, and PERSONAL, meaning they occur all the time, they will last forever, and it is their fault.

Someone with an Optimistic Explanatory Style interprets adversity as LOCALIZED, TEMPORARY, and CIRCUMSTANTIAL, meaning the event is only occurring at this particular time, it won’t last forever, and it is not their fault.

Are You Pessimistic or Optimistic?  Take our quiz to find out!

The differences between these two Explanatory Styles can determine an entirely different experience of life.  We go into tons of detail on how our framing of experiences impacts us in our Your Storied Life section.

Optimistic Pessimistic
Adverse Scenario Losing a tennis match
Pervasiveness “I lost this game today.” “I always lose when I play tennis.”
Permanence “That’s just today, maybe I could win next time.” “I’ll never be good at tennis.”
Personalization “I’m having an off day, probably because I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” “This is because I’m just bad at sports and don’t have the talent for it.”
Adverse Scenario Being fired
Pervasiveness “I wasn’t a match for this particular job.” “No one ever likes me or my work in any of the jobs I’ve had.”
Permanence “I’ll probably be more successful somewhere else.” “I’m never going to find a job that wants to keep me.”
Personalization “There are probably some systemic issues at play that didn’t support my success in that role.” “I suck at what I do.”
Adverse Scenario Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
Pervasiveness “This is a specific illness with specific effects on my health/life.” “This will ruin everything I’m invested in.”
Permanence “This may be something I can beat.” “This is not something I can survive.”
Personalization “My immune system isn’t strong and I have no control over that.” “This is because I’ve never taken good enough care of myself.”

Interestingly enough, when it comes to positive events, these explanations flip.  Optimists explain them the same way Pessimists explain negative events: as pervasive, permanent, and personal, while Pessimists explain positive events as localized, temporary, and impersonal.

Optimistic Pessimistic
Positive Scenario Being Promoted
Pervasiveness “I always get promoted after I’ve been at a job for a little while.” “This is a rare, random event.”
Permanence “I will continue to be recognized for the quality of my work.” “This will probably not happen again.”
Personalization “This is directly because of all the effort I’ve been putting into my work lately.” “They needed to promote somebody and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

As you’ll learn more about in the section on The Impacts of Hope, these Explanatory Styles have a huge influence on how we respond to adversity in our lives.

Eeyore: The Pessimist

Eeyore tends to expect things to go poorly, and qualifies as a defensive pessimist.

“End of the road. Nothing to do, and no hope of things getting better.”

Tigger: The Optimist

Tigger is consistently full of energy and powered by his undying belief in himself.  He expects things to go well.

“Climb trees? Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! Why, that’s what Tiggers do best!”

While these two characters don’t fit the roles perfectly, they are good general mascots for these attitudes.

Explanatory Styles, Learned Helplessness, and Learned Optimism

Watch this video to see another example of Explanatory Styles in action and how they tie into Seligman’s theories.

“I am not an optimist.  I am a very serious possibilist.” – Hans Rosling, physician, academic, and public speaker

Agency

Most of the content on this site is based on the scientifically-supported premise that we have a high-degree of control over our outlook and how we respond to events in our lives. “Agency,” in the context of Hope, is a matter of exercising our will because we believe this to be true.  It is action inspired by the optimistic belief in our own Self Efficacy.

Dr. Albert Bandura, the psychologist who established Self Efficacy Theory, proposed that our perception of whether or not we are capable of doing something affects our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.  People with high Hope believe that their actions have influence on events and that they have the ability to succeed in things they pursue.

Agency is an ability we all have.  However, it isn’t fully developed in all people.  Increasing our Agency is often a conscious pursuit. Bandura offers that Agency is developed through mastery of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and beliefs, thus enabling us to influence various arenas of our lives.  You can check out these related sections on the website for tools that cultivate agency: YSL & 100% Responsibility.  One’s degree of Self Efficacy fosters serving or un-serving self-fulfilling prophecies, in that having a high or low degree of Agency can determine what we do or do not invest our energy into.

High Agency
Through believing one’s actions have influence over reality, one is more likely to engage in things like the following:
Put effort into improving relationships, as you have the ability to make a difference
Vote in an election, as your vote has value
Recycle, as you believe your actions contribute to the whole
Educate yourself about investing, as you believe it is possible to improve your finances
Low Agency
Through believing one’s actions have little influence, one is more likely to engage in the following:
Through believing business success is a matter of luck, you may not take the actions necessary to make your business exceptionally successful.
Through believing you are condemned to health complications through your genetics, you may not put effort into alternate ways to make yourself incrementally healthier.
Through believing you aren’t intelligent, you may not apply yourself in school.

The Importance of Neural Plasticity

In this video from Sentis, a safety consulting firm that specializes in using psychology to drive workplace culture, Neural Plasticity is explained in relation to Growth Mindset.

  • The brain changes and adapts throughout our lives
  • The more we engage in specific thoughts or behaviors, the stronger the neural pathways for them become in our brains.
  • By engaging in new thoughts and behaviors, we create new pathways.  By repeating them, we can strengthen those pathways.

The Role of a Growth Mindset

Having a Growth Mindset is to operate under the assumption that abilities are not fixed but can be improved through effort and application.  Dr. Carol Dweck, the psychologist who introduced Growth Mindset, argued that our belief as to whether or not our abilities are fixed can influence the decisions we make and the effort we apply.  Her work is supported by neural plasticity: because our brains can grow new neural connections, we can affect the growth of such neural pathways ourselves based on various practices and strategies.

Take the Growth Mindset Quiz

A Growth Mindset is a fundamentally Optimistic belief.  By employing it when considering what you are capable of, it encourages us to take risks and apply effort in areas that will increase our possibilities for success.  However, if we employ a Fixed Mindset (one that is characteristically Pessimistic) and believe nothing we do can improve our lot, we may choose to disengage from challenges, have low self-esteem, or engage in strategies like cheating.

A Growth Mindset is integral to Hope, in that it affords the individual considerably more agency and possibility.  However, the concept is criticized as having questionable impact on grades where it has been applied in schools and has received similar criticism to the concept of Grit.  There is still much work to be done in the arena of how we apply Growth Mindset theory in classrooms as a great deal can get lost in it’s application outside of the laboratory.

Carol Dweck: The Power of Believing That You Can Improve
In this TED Talk, Carol Dweck explains her research with school children and how perspective impacts learning.

Pathways

Dr. Shane Lopez, a senior scientist for Gallup, discusses “Waypower” as a critical component of Hope.   Waypower is the belief in and creation of multiple paths to achieving a specific goal.  A pathway is the actionable steps that can be taken toward your desired outcome.

Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and University of Hamburg, studied something called Mental Contrasting.  Mental Contrasting is visualizing our future obstacles and making plans for addressing them preemptively, a behavior that has a significant impact on successfully overcoming such obstacles when they do arise.  In order to overcome or achieve something, we need to execute an approach to our goal, which is the pathway.  Mental Contrasting is a strategy for coming up with multiple pathways that Hopeful people may consciously or unconsciously employ.

People with high Hope, due to their Optimistic explanatory style, tend to not only see more creative solutions to a given problem2, but they are less likely to give up3,4 if one solution they try fails.  They end up trying another pathway.  People with high levels of Hope are more persistent than those with less Hope, and their varied and abundant repertoire of pathways enables this ability.

A Complete Guide to Goal Setting

This video breaks down how to create actionable pathways along the journey to your goals by using SMART goals. Create goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Relevant to your life
  • Timebound
  • Evaluate your progress
  • Reward yourself

Download our Printout and improve your goal setting skills:

What limits Waypower?  While Hope research seems to focus on an individual’s ability to generate multiple plans of action, any given individual will have different circumstances that determine possible courses of action.  Maybe someone was raised by a parent with a Fixed Mindset who taught their child that they could only grow up to be a mailman or a lawyer, or demonstrated that if you fail at a task once you shouldn’t try again.  These kinds of factors can hamper how we view possibility and agency, which affects our ability to come up with Pathways.  Someone could likewise be limited by financial resources, health, education, prejudice, or other societal barriers, thus having specific pathways eliminated before they begin.  Every person is going to have a unique set of circumstances to contend with on the path to their goals.  While we do not always have control over external factors, we give ourselves a better chance of working through them by considering it possible and creating actionable plans for trying.

Tools for Cultivating Waypower Thinking

These PDF’s are full of exercises and information to enable your growth in the realm of planning and productivity. These are some of the most straight-forward, effective techniques out there. Give them a shot!

Hope Mapping
Create a map of your goals, motivations, and actionable steps.

Kaizen
Do anything by hacking your brain’s ability to automate with small, consistent steps towards your larger goals.

Vision Boarding
Inspire motivation by being able to LOOK at your goal.

SMART Goals
Make your goals achievable by learning to define them and make them actionable.

WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan)
A tool based on Mental Contrasting for clarifying all necessary steps and options in achieving a goal.

GROW Goal Setting Model
A tool to help you account for factors that influence how you achieve your goals.

Scenario Amount of Hope Explanatory Style Agency Pathways
You and your partner had a huge fight last night High Optimistic This is something I can resolve In approaching my partner to discuss the issue, they will likely be unwilling to talk. If that happens, I can give them more space and time, I can ask if they’d be willing to talk anyway, I can ask when they’d be ready to talk.
Low Pessimistic Nothing I do can make this better Putting in effort is not worth my time and will do more damage than good.
You are struggling with a new diet after a week High Optimistic My eating habits affect my health and I can choose differently Since I know that I am struggling with the impulse to eat sugary foods, I will plan my meals for the day and bring sugar alternatives. If that does not work I will try rewarding myself at the end of the week with a small treat for succeeding, or I can enlist the help of a friend to tell whenever I have a craving instead of following up on the craving.
Low Pessimistic I gain weight and have health issues no matter how well I eat There is not a point in trying to control my impulses, especially since I’ve already proven to myself that I can’t do it.

How Much Hope Do You Need?

Now that we’ve defined Hope as a positive cognitive behavioral process that is pragmatic in nature, how do you know how much Hope you need to accomplish a particular goal?  Not all goals are created equal.  Depending on the circumstances and the magnitude of what needs to be accomplished, more or less Hope may be relevant.

Goal Have a nice weekend with the relatives Getting a promotion Surviving severe heart disease
Goal magnitude and Amount of Hope Small Medium Large
What that Hope may look like, degrees of effort Believing it is possible to have a nice weekend with them and that you have influence over that. You put a little effort into planning a brunch for everyone. Believing it is possible that you can get promoted and that you can influence it with your actions. You research new ways to work more effectively, have a meeting about what you could improve, and begin including new practices and actions in your work routine based on the information you collected. Believing it is possible to survive and that you can do something to affect your health. You invest your time in mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing practices and are 100% committed to these. Continually revisiting your emotional buy-in to sustain motivation in the face of setbacks or lack of progress.

In Summary

When we begin to understand Hope as a practical process and not as some kind of forced, unsubstantiated wishful thinking, it is easier to understand its associated benefits.

  • Hopeful people interpret adversity as temporary, impersonal, and situation-specific.  Therefore any single failure or challenge does not cast a devastating blow, and they can persist despite experiencing failure.  
  • Hopeful people believe that their actions have an impact and that they have control over their choices.  Therefore they are empowered to believe they are capable of succeeding which helps motivate them.
  • Hopeful people expect and make multiple plans for addressing future obstacles.  Therefore they have a wide range of tools to draw from, making them more dynamic and adaptable.
  • Due to the above mindsets, Hopeful people are resilient, creative, and determined.

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” – Barack Obama

 Learn all about why Hope works and how it can affect your life.

Hope Hope Fundamentals Types of Hope Hope Criticism Hope Practice and Exercises Hope Impacts Anti-Hope Hope Resources Hope Resources Hope Poetry Hope Quotes Hope Short Stories