How to Cultivate Hope When You Don’t Have Any

There’s a sense, once a whisper, that’s growing louder every day. Glaciers are melting; children are being slaughtered; hatred runs rampant. Sometimes it feels like the world’s approaching a nadir. Or like you are.

The antidote to any despair might be hope, experts say. It’s one of the most powerful—and essential—human mindsets, and possible to achieve even when it feels out of reach. “Hope is a way of thinking,” says Chan Hellman, a psychologist who’s the founding director of the Hope Research Center at the University of Oklahoma. “We know it can be taught; we know it can be nurtured. It’s not something you either have or don’t have.”

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Many people, he notes, don’t fully understand what hope is—and what it isn’t. Being hopeful doesn’t mean engaging in wishful thinking or blind optimism. Rather, it’s “the belief or the expectation that the future can be better, and that more importantly, we have the capacity to pursue that future,” Hellman says. The opposite of hope, therefore, is not pessimism, but rather apathy, with its loss of motivation. And while wishing is passive, hope is about taking action.

Being hopeful is associated with a wide array of health and life benefits. “Our capacity for hope is one of the strongest predictors of well-being,” Hellman says. Research suggests, for example, that people with more hope throughout their lives have fewer chronic health problems; are less likely to be depressed or anxious; have stronger social support; and tend to live longer. As Hellman points out, “Hope begets hope, and it has such a significant protective factor.”

We asked Hellman and other experts for strategies that can help cultivate hope—even when it feels unattainable.

1. First, give yourself permission to be hopeful.

Remember when you were a kid, and well-intentioned adults cautioned you not to get your hopes up? That mentality can linger, notes David Feldman, a professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California who studies hope. “The truth is, whether or not we allow ourselves to hope, at some point we’re going to be disappointed. I don’t think the solution is never allowing ourselves to feel hopeful or giving up on hope altogether.”

Feldman—who designed a widely used single-session “Hope Workshop”—thinks of hope as the psychological engine that drives progress in our lives. He worries that if we all give up on it, “we’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” So go ahead and grant yourself permission to look toward the future with excitement and ambition.

2. Set at least one meaningful goal.

In the mid-1980s, the psychologist Charles Snyder set out to determine what qualities hopeful people had in common. He landed on three key factors that form the basis for Hope Theory, a model researchers still rely on today: First, in order to be hopeful, Snyder found, people must think in a goal-oriented way. (More on the other two elements, pathways and agency, in a moment.)

Make it a point to always be working toward at least one goal that’s intrinsically meaningful, Feldman advises. In other words, it shouldn’t be something you have to do—like crossing off your work to-do list—but something you want to do. “Goals can be anything that’s important to us,” he says.

Feldman recalls a friend who reached out to him in May 2020, newly furloughed from her job, scared about the pandemic, and feeling utterly hopeless. He asked her if she could set one goal that would allow her to use her talents and make her feel empowered. The woman, who enjoyed sewing, ended up pledging to turn scraps of fabric into face masks—and donated 200 to local nonprofits and charity groups. “When I caught up with her a month later, she was transformed—she felt so much more hopeful,” he says.

3. Brainstorm solutions.

Another key element of Snyder’s Hope Theory is “pathways.” Feldman describes this as “kind of a strange psychology term that means having the perception that there are plans or ways of getting you from where you are to your goals.” If you’ve set a goal that’s meaningful to you, but you can’t figure out a way to achieve it, you’ll probably feel pretty hopeless. People who are high in hope, meanwhile, tend to generate lots of pathways—so if one doesn’t work out, they have an alternative at the ready. If you’re struggling to make a plan, or you keep being blocked—by someone else, or an unfair system, or bad luck—Feldman suggests sitting down with a pen and paper and giving yourself an hour to brainstorm solutions.

4. Call your support team.

According to Snyder’s research, people who are hopeful tend to have a lot of “agency,” which means the motivation to actually achieve their goals. Getting a good night’s rest, following a healthy diet, and meditating can all promote agency, Feldman says. So can tapping into our own positive beliefs about ourselves; there’s a certain power to reminding yourself: “I got this.”

Sometimes, however, the strongest source of agency is other people. When Feldman is feeling low, he calls his father, who’s his biggest cheerleader. Having someone you care about tell you they believe in you “can give you a kick in the behind,” he says. Make a list of your biggest supporters, Feldman suggests, so when you’re feeling unmotivated, you know exactly who to call for a boost.

5. Seek out success stories.

Mary Beth Medvide has long been curious about the ways hope manifests in the lives of marginalized groups, like first-generation immigrants. So she set out to explore how low-income students of color experienced it in their daily lives.

In part, she found, they cultivated hope by seeking support from their parents and specific teachers. But they also got a lot out of meeting or learning about other people who had done well for themselves. “By seeing other people succeed—like maybe a senior, when they were a sophomore—they felt like they could succeed,” says Medvide, an assistant professor of psychology at Suffolk University in Boston. Indeed, research suggests that high levels of hope are associated with academic achievement and career exploration. 

That’s something we can all apply to our own lives: Make it a point to read books about or even befriend people who have overcome adversity to achieve their goals, and you’ll likely feel more hopeful about your own future, Medvide says.

6. Tap into your imagination.

Hellman thinks of imagination as “the instrument of hope.” Let’s say you set a goal for the week, like applying for five jobs, helping your kid adjust to preschool, or volunteering for two hours. Spend a few minutes reflecting on or talking about what would happen if you achieved it. “How does it impact you, or how would it benefit others, and who are those other people?” he says. “You and I have this wonderful capacity to play a movie in our head. And when you can see yourself in the future, that is the very essence of hope.”

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Contributor: Angela Haupt