Hope Impacts

This page will present some of the compelling research on the effects of Hope. If you haven’t already, learn about what hope really is on the Hope Fundamentals page.

How Does Hope Work?

Hope is Self Perpetuating 

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has done extensive research on the science of positive emotions.  Hope, while we mostly frame it as a dynamic cognitive behavioral process, is also considered a positive emotion by Dr. Fredrickson.  This refers to the positive motivational feelings associated with the process.  Thus, Dr. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory applies to Hope.

The Broaden and Build Theory “suggests that positive emotions broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources.”  This means that having high Hope (amongst the other positive emotions) opens us up to new possibilities and helps us amass mental, social, emotional, skill-based, and physical resources, which then opens us up to even more possibilities and thus more resources.

Hope is naturally self-perpetuating because by practicing Hope and achieving more of our goals, we can demonstrate our ability to achieve what we set our minds to.  This builds confidence and increases our Optimism and sense of Agency, thus increasing our likelihood to engage in pathways thinking.  Hope is a cycle that can continue to fuel itself.

Hope Changes How You Make Choices

Because people with high Hope believe that their actions have an impact, they make certain choices that reflect that belief.  For example, believing in and being acutely aware of the impact of brushing your teeth on future dental health will affect your decision to brush your teeth.  A Hopeful person is more likely to believe that the action of brushing their teeth today will equate to healthier teeth tomorrow, and thus are more likely to brush their teeth.  Because people with high Hope are more likely to make choices that positively impact their well-being (be it dental health or otherwise), when their choices prove to be effective, they are more likely to continue making choices of this kind, and continue to positively impact their own well-being.  Hope is a self-perpetuating cycle.

Hope Connects the Present to the Future

High Hope people are less likely to do things like smoke and more likely to have positive behaviors like maintaining a good diet, because of their ability to connect their present moment choices to their future selves.  Research by scientist Hal Herschfield showed that when people are primed with thinking of their future selves, they are more likely to save more money, make more ethical decisions, and act in their best interests (Hershfield 2011).  People with high Hope have a mindset that connects them to their future selves more clearly, which helps motivate them.

Hope is Energizing

Another fascinating way that Hope primes you for success is how it energizes you physiologically.  Because Hopeful people envision the challenges they expect to encounter, they become physically activated and therefore more motivated to pursue a goal.

This is supported by the work of researcher Gabriele Oettingen, who spent many years exploring the impact of fantasizing on goal achievement.  She discovered that when people visualized challenges they expected to encounter enroute to their desired outcome, their systolic blood pressure increased, an indication that they were likely experiencing some stress and endorphin release.  This was in contrast to people who only visualized enjoying their desired outcome, whose blood pressure decreased- a sign that they became more relaxed.  The compelling part is that, several weeks after this exercise when the research subjects were revisited, the group that had an increase in systolic blood pressure were far more likely to have achieved their goal.  This compliments Seligman’s work on Learned Helplessness.  People who had the trait of Helplessness (meaning they had a pessimistic explanatory style and believed they didn’t have control over their experience) were much more likely to give up on challenges presented to them.

Where Does Hope Come From?

As we covered in Hope Fundamentals, Hope is obviously a useful strategy for survival because of all of its benefits: it predicts better health habits, more success, and a greater number of healthy relationships.  As with most successful strategies, it evolved because it gave humans a leg up in various ways.

The Role of Positive Emotions

One way of understanding the evolution of Hope is to look at it in the various contexts of positive emotions and states.  While we frame Hope as a behavioral and cognitive process, it is often misconceived as only an emotion.  While it is far more complicated than being a feeling, the behavioral and cognitive process of Hope encompass a positive emotional experience.

Positive psychology didn’t really take off until the 1960’s when Martin Seligman began to work on the theory of Learned Optimism.  Up until that point, most research in psychology focused on understanding and treating mental illness.  Barbara Fredrickson has spent her career focusing on the science of positive emotions and in 1998 she presented the Broaden and Build Theory to explain the origin and utility of positive emotions.  While it is theorized that negative emotions evolved to instigate specific actions (like fight, flight, or freeze in response to fear), scientists were unable to link positive emotions to specific actions.  An emotion such as love can motivate us to a wide variety of actions, as can joy.

Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory postulates that positive emotions work on a different time scale than negative ones.  While negative emotions help us respond in the moment to increase survival odds, positive ones enable us to thrive by building resources over the long term.  Positive emotions both open us to possibilities and encourage learning and connection.

The Role of Prospection

In psychologist Tali Sharot’s book, “The Optimism Bias,” she suggests that Optimism evolved as a psychologically protective counter to our ability to think into the future.  While many animals can instinctively plan for the future, humans can imagine and plan for future events with unmatched complexity.  This ability is called prospection.  Sharot argues that the gift of prospection gave us the capacity to plan for future challenges.  By being able to anticipate events like drought, famine, ice storms, or war, we could better prepare for them and survive them.  However, as we reviewed in the impacts of pessimism, dwelling on negative thoughts can be psychologically damaging. The cost of prospection is hyper-awareness of our inevitable demise: we will die, we will get sick, we will lose our loved ones.  Rather than this realization constantly sending us into existential despair, Sharot offers that we evolved Optimism to combat the depressing reality of our existence.

One could add religious belief to this category of Optimism.  From a functionalist perspective, many religions offer the purpose to endure the hardships in our lives through the promise of an afterlife, reincarnation, or being rewarded with wisdom and more meaning.  While the vast majority of the world is religious and Hope plays a large role in religion, research indicates that belief in a rewarding afterlife is correlated with high levels of Optimism.  In fact, research indicates that higher levels of Optimism are present in highly-committed religious groups than less-religiously committed groups.  There are various, nuanced explanations for what determines this difference(Ciarrocchi 2008, Mattis et. al 2017, Sethi & Seligman 1993).  Read more on Hope in regards to religion here.

To be perfectly fair, a conventionally optimistic view (being overly positive) of the future isn’t completely accurate.  “Bad” things are inevitable in our lives.  People will get sick, people will pass away, the economy will fluctuate and relationships will change.  However, being generally optimistic is healthy, and “good” things are also inevitable. Having an optimistic explanatory style within the framework of Hope makes what you expect more likely because it changes what you pay attention to.  It also makes your current choices more meaningful and energizes you to confront challenges.  Sharot argues that it protects us from the despair that would naturally occur if we were to stay in our pessimistic planning mind.

She insists that Optimism is essential to progress:

“In order to progress we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — not just any old realities, but better ones, and we need to believe them to be possible.” – Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias

The possibility part is where Hope comes in.

Success

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” – Woody Allen

What are the factors that enable success?  Hope research suggests that Woody Allen is on to something.  According to Lopez, Hope is an essential determinant in behaviors like attendance and productivity.

 

  • Gallup polls have linked high Hope to high attendance again and again.  (Gallup 2009b)
  • When measured, employees with higher Hope give a more creative and a higher quantity of solutions to a given problem (Lopez 2013).  When Seligman studied how Hope impacted insurance sales, it was revealed that optimistic agents sold 37% more their first year while all the agents that happened to quit within the first year were pessimists (Seligman 1991).
  • According to Dr. Shane Lopez, Hope leads to a 14% increase in productivity: “Basically a hopeful person does one day a week more work than a less hopeful person in a seven-day work week,… It’s quite a big chunk of the pie.” (Lopez 2013) (Weir 2013)

When considering that Hope predicts greater attendance and productivity, some of its impacts on success in academics and work are understandable.

Truancy: It’s not Too Late to Change: Student Voice
In this video from Student Voice, several students tell their personal stories of committing to attendance and how it impacted their academic success.

Academics

This article by Berkeley Greater Good Science Center summarizes the impact of Hope on students succinctly:

 “Students who are high in hope have greater academic success, stronger friendships, and demonstrate more creativity and better problem-solving. They also have lower levels of depression and anxiety and are less likely to drop out from school.”

  • Hope is a better predictor of continued enrollment and graduation in college than ACT scores. (Gallagher et al. 2017)
  • In a study performed at Hofstra University, students on academic probation were enrolled in a Hope Intervention course that showed that high levels of Hope were correlated with significantly higher GPAs at the end of the semester.
  • Highschool and college students with high Hope have better grade point averages, even when controlling for previous grades, intelligence, and other independent psychological variables like optimism, engagement, and self-efficacy. (Lopez 2013)
  • Hope is correlated with a 12% gain in academic performance overall. (Lopez 2013)
  • Middle-schoolers shown a presentation that related their education directly to future income were 8x more likely to do an optional extra credit assignment than students shown a video about income not related to education (such as celebrity careers).  Students who were inspired to connect to one of the fundamental principles of Hope theory (agency) were more likely to have positive educational behaviors. (Oyserman & Destin 2010)
  • High Hope has been linked to better athletic performance amongst students regardless of prior skill. (Curry & Snyder 2000)

Finances

Jim Carrey consistently visualized himself as successful and even wrote himself a 10 million dollar check with a three year deadline.  He relentlessly pursued his work and this goal, eventually meeting it right on schedule.

  • Because people with high Hope are more productive, they are more likely to have higher incomes.
  • One ten-year longitudinal study showed that higher optimism in the first year of law school predicted income ten years later.  One point on the optimism scale accounted for $32,000 in salary difference. (Segerstrom 2007)
  • Optimists are 90% more likely to save money for important purchases. (FleishmanHillard and Frost Bank 2018)
  •  In a regression analysis of a study on the relationship between optimism and financial health,  1-point increase in optimism is associated with a 0.1-point increase in financial well-being, meaning optimism is associated with an increase in financial well-being of up to 10 points.(FleishmanHillard and Frost Bank 2018)

Impacts on Health

Because of how connected they are to their future selves by acknowledging that choices they make today affect future outcomes, Hopeful people make better health choices.  In Dr. Snyder’s Hope Theory, he divides these health behaviors into two categories: Primary (meaning preventative of illness or injury) and Secondary (meaning in response to illness or injury).

Primary Behaviors

A Primary Behavior in this context would be something like brushing your teeth, taking your vitamins, or stretching every morning.  They are behaviors that promote good health and prevent health complications.  Psychologists Suzanne Segerstrom, Michael Scheier, and Charles Carver summarize the data relevant to those with optimistic explanatory styles in their paper on Optimism:

“In sum, optimists appear to take action to minimize health risks. They do not simply stick their heads in the sand and ignore threats to well-being. They attend to risks, but they do so selectively. They focus on risks that apply to them and relate to potentially serious health problems (Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). If the potential problem is minor, or if it is unlikely to bear on them, they are not especially vigilant. Optimists appear to scan for threats to well-being but save their behavioral responses for threats that are truly meaningful.”  (2010)

This means, essentially, that Hopeful people have primary health behaviors because they focus on what is relevant to them.

  • Hopeful people educate themselves on relevant health risks and engage in behaviors relevant to those risks. (Radcliffe & Klein 2002)
  • Hopeful people are more likely to exercise. (Shepperd et al. 1996)
  • Hopeful people are less likely to smoke. (Seligman 1991)
  • In fact, Seligman claimed in his book, “Learned Optimism,” that “We estimate that being in the upper quartile of optimism seems to have a beneficial effect on cardiovascular risk roughly equivalent to not smoking two packs of cigarettes daily.”
Secondary Behaviors

Secondary Behaviors are habits like researching your symptoms to find ways to treat a cold and applying them, or choosing to make time to rest and recuperate.  Because of an experiment he did that demonstrated Hope as a predictor of high pain tolerance, Dr. Snyder deducted that Hopeful people have more engaged coping strategies than those with low Hope.  Hope promotes engagement with challenge, and that includes medical concerns. (Snyder et al. 2009)

  • Hopeful people may cope better with pain, meaning illness or injury may not discourage them as much as someone with low Hope.
  • Hopeful people are more energized during poor health and focus more on strategies to get better. (Rand et al. 2009)
  • Hopeful and Optimistic people are more likely to educate themselves on their situation and engage in coping strategies. (Irving et al. 2008)

Perhaps ironically, when studying the personality trait of Optimism outside of the context of Hope, Dr. Suzanne Segerstrom showed that Optimists can occasionally have negative health effects due to potential over-engagement with challenges.  She theorized that because Optimists are persistent, they may overlook some health concerns in the pursuit of other life goals, thus impacting short term health. (Carver et al. 2010)

Aron Ralston fell while hiking and had his hand crushed by a boulder.  In order to escape, he chose to break the bones in his arm and cut it off.  His goal of being reunited with his family inspired Hope in him and helped him persevere in the face of death.

Longevity & Survival

Hope contributes to increased longevity. This is a result of better health choices, better emotional regulation, and overall better well-being over time.  Most of the original research on longevity relates to the impacts of Optimism, but it can apply to Hope as well.  Optimism is a predictor of greater longevity regardless of socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors(Lee et al. 2019).  If you add the healthy choices and rich relationships of Hopeful people to the mix, the story just gets better.

  • Studies show that optimistic people can survive 10-15% longer than non-optimists.  *Do keep in mind that research suggests that depression may be more harmful to longevity than Optimism is helpful (Shofield et al. 2014).
  • Optimists are less stressed, and therefore have less stress-related physiological impact on their bodies over the course of their lives.21
  • Hopeful people, since they perceive less stress, may heal faster. (Secan 2019) (Ebrecht et al. 2004)
  • One study monitored a group of nuns for the impact of positive affect over their lifetime.  The nuns who scored highest in positivity at age 22 were far more likely to live longer.  By age 85, 97% of the most positive nuns were still alive, whereas only 52% of the nuns with the least positivity were still alive by 85.  At age 93, 52% of the positive nuns were still alive and only 18% of the least positive were still alive.44

The blog Humans of New York shared this story of a woman whose husband suffered an aneurysm.  Told he wouldn’t survive, she whispered to him that if he did, she would have another child with him.  He recovered over seven months and they have given birth to their latest son.  While there isn’t concrete evidence in this case that Hope pulled him through, it is possible that his sense of purpose for the future helped her husband recover.

Immunity

While there have not been studies of the impact of Hope directly on immunity, results from studies on Optimism’s impacts have shown mostly positive correlations — but they’re inconsistent.  Researchers are still sorting out what factors are responsible for the differences in data.

In Dr. Seligman’s work on Optimism, he claimed that Optimism keeps Pessimism at bay, which helps improve your immune functioning by means of avoiding the negative impacts of Pessimism.  It is argued in his book, “Learned Optimism,” that Pessimism passifies the immune system in a similar way that it passifies a low-Hope person’s will to meet challenges, ultimately weakening it.

The truth is that results are mixed.  Purely biological studies of the impact of Optimism on health show a positive correlation (Rasmussen et al. 2009).  One study found that Optimism was related to an increase in a response called cell-mediated immunity, suggesting that positive expectations may promote better immune functioning (Segerstrom & Sephton 2010).

However, the results sometimes indicate Optimism could be bad for immunity in the long run (Segerstrom 2005).  Psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom found that Optimism had a short term detriment to immunity but possibly not a long term one.   One theory suggests that this could be owed to Optimists having physiological stress reactions when their high expectations are not met.  In the broader context of Hope, this might look different since a Hopeful person has strategies while an Optimist may not.  Dr. Segerstrom tries to explain the results in a different way, based on the idea that Optimists stay engaged for the long haul with a challenge to reap the long-term benefits.  When things get tougher and others might throw in the towel, an Optimist may persist and become more stressed (Cohen et al. 1999).

Well-being

“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” ― Tom Bodett

In the realm of subjective well-being the impacts of Hope are much clearer.  Studies have demonstrated a strong link between high Hope and a personal sense of wellbeing (Magaletta & Oliver 1999).  Hope has been shown to determine happiness and purpose in adolescents by bolstering a sense of competence, confidence, character, and connections to caring people (Ciarrochi et al. 2015).

Nic Vuijicic was born without limbs.  He affords his well being and success to his sense of Hope.  He believes we must have an attitude that enables us to turn obstacles into opportunities.

Life Satisfaction

“Hope is necessary but not sufficient for happiness.” Dr. Shane Lopez, Making Hope Happen

While Lopez explored the relationship between happiness and Hope in his research with psychologist Matt Gallagher, very little research has been done on the topic.  Hope has been shown to be a strong predictor of self-reported happiness and life satisfaction, but researchers aren’t sure exactly how (Gallagher & Lopez 2009).  One theory is that Hope protects people from the psychological effects of adversity and enables us to access happiness and purpose more readily.

Meaning

Since Hope has the quality of a motivational state, inherent to Hope is a sense of purpose, which contributes to a sense of well being.  This website explores a vast array of avenues to creating meaning, and Hope is by no means a panacea in that regard.  It is, however, a valuable approach.  Hope lines up with several theories of meaning cultivation.

Dr. Rick Snyder references31 Viktor Frankl’s three aspects of meaning, claiming that the Hope model aligns.

1. By creating work or doing a deed Executing pathways toward a goal
2. By experiencing something or encountering someone Experiencing the process of pursuing a goal and the outcome
3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering Optimistic explanatory style

In terms of the Four Cornerstones of Meaning model from this site, Hope easily enables us to live into them:

Action towards a goal as an expression of value.  Actions/goals could be an expressive act.

Learning by doing, taking risks, failing.

Goals can be related to serving others.

Hopeful people have more perceived social support and richer relationships.

In later Hope research, meaning was framed more strictly in terms of goal-directed behavior, which is an intrinsic property of Hope. Hopefulness has been shown to positively affect interpretations of meaning amongst college students 31.

Resiliency

Hope is negatively correlated with anxiety and depression 31.  Dr. Seligman would again point to explanatory style as an explanation for this, since he argues that Pessimism is a key ingredient in depression and high Hope people are by definition not pessimistic.  One study showed that the agency component of Hope was the most accurate predictor of less depression and anxiety (Arnau et al. 2006).

Hope may lead to less depressive symptoms because it leads to more engaged coping mechanisms 21.  When a Hopeful person is presented with adversity, they stay engaged, while a more pessimistic person is likely to disengage with the challenge by giving up or avoiding it 21.  It is possible that Hopeful people’s ability to rebound from negative life events (like the death of a family member, the loss of a job, or a serious illness) stems in part from their uncanny ability to endure more pain than non-hopeful people(Snyder 1996).

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, survived three years in a concentration camp during .  He wrote profusely on the topic of creating meaning in our lives.  He spoke of a concept he called “Tragic Optimism,” which is the ability to transmute three elements of tragedy into Hope: Pain, Guilt, and Death.

“… an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

Resiliency is a dynamic element of wellbeing and it is a core feature of Hope.  In Gabriele Oettingen’s work on mental contrasting, she found that optimistic people have similar initial negative responses to adversity as those who are pessimistic- they experience the same levels of physiological stress (Oettingen 2014).  However, not only might they worry less and consciously perceive less stress 37, they equalize to normal levels of cortisol and blood pressure far faster than those with less Hope!  This is likely due to their optimistic explanatory style, which enables them to interpret the instigating stressor as temporary, situation specific, and something they can do something about.

In terms of coping skills, Hopeful people adapt to the problems they encounter and do more problem solving.  This is due to their expectations of encountering challenges and their tendency to plan ahead for them.  Hope allows them to pivot to Plan C when Plans A and B do not pan out. 35

The popular photo blog Humans of New York featured this story about a man who grew up near Harvard, worked on the property as a carpenter, but never graduated high school himself.  He decided one day that he would attend and spent three years getting the necessary education and entrance exams to make it happen.  Through his hard work and determination he was able to achieve his goal.

Relationships

Social connection and the emotion of love are hard-wired into human-beings.  A high-degree of social support and integration are correlated with greater wellbeing.  Hope helps with this, too!  Not only is it associated with having a greater number of relationships, it contributes to having healthy and satisfying ones.

Optimists are generally associated with having bigger social networks14 and experience less loneliness than non-optimists, but they also perceive that they have more social support than pessimists do, even if that is not the case(Sympson 1999)(Harris 2019).  This may be because Hopeful people are more interested in other people, and take more pleasure in spending time with and getting to know others (Macques et al. 2014) (check out our section on Cognitive Biases to better understand how what you pay attention to affirms what you believe to be true).  This social desire works within Dr. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory, naturally expanding social resources.

One of the reasons individuals with high Hope have stronger and more satisfying relationships is because of how they deal with conflict.  They apply their optimistic explanatory style not only to challenges in their personal goals, but respond the same way to conflict in their relationships.  They may be less reactive, feel they are capable of fixing the situation, and are unlikely to give up on the relationship if things get a bit rocky (Parise et al. 2017).  Hopeful couples are more likely to accommodate one another in the midst of a conflict, facilitating better communication and their ability to find a resolution (Merolla & Harman 2016).

In Summary

  • Hope works by creating a self-perpetuating cycle, helping us to see that our choices matter, connecting us to the future, and energizing us.
  • Hope has been shown to have positive impacts on:
    • Success: in academics, athletics, and income
    • Health: healthy behaviors, longevity, survival of disease and injury, and immunity
    • Wellbeing: in happiness, meaning, resiliency, and in quality and quantity of relationships
  • Hope probably evolved as a long-term strategy for humans to thrive.
  • Optimism may have evolved to protect us from our Prospection ability.  Optimism may interfere with our focus on inevitable future events like death or suffering, which could lead to disabling despair.

“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 about the roles of Negativity and Pessimism in creating the lives we experience and desire.

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
Citations
  1. Seligman, M. E., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0024514
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  13. “Hope Emerges as Key to Success in Life.” New York Times, December 24, 1991, Section C, Page 1.  https://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/24/science/hope-emerges-as-key-to-success-in-life.html
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