Jennifer and Greg met a little late in their lives to start a family. They were lucky, however, and conceived via IVF treatment. When they learned that they would have a baby girl they set about creating a “pink palace” nursery. Then, at 26 weeks gestation, the baby died. The ensuing caesarean delivery was performed in absolute silence, and, as Greg stood over Jennifer, his tears fell on her cheeks and mingled with her own. In the recovery room, they cradled their perfectly formed, lifeless baby, and named her Hope. Yet, Jennifer writes, at that moment hope was gone for her, together with her dreams and future. How was she supposed to go on? How would she live? What was she to do with the “pink palace”? Jennifer and Greg now have a little boy who was naturally conceived, and Jennifer has shared some excellent recommendations for overcoming grief: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2015/10/15/the-lessons-i-learned-after-losing-a-baby-and-finding-hope/ .1
Hope does not feature highly in our awareness of what we essentially need for living. And yet it is such a crucial ingredient for human life. Just think of how much we do out of hope – how many of our endeavours connect to a future we hope for. And when individuals don’t have hope it is a very serious concern for psychological and mental health professionals. Grewal and Porter point out that although depression is an established and strong predictor of suicide, hopelessness may be an even more exact indicator of it. Hopelessness not only plays a significant role in causing and maintaining depression, it is also considered to be the link between depression and suicide.2
When psychologists measure hopelessness, three factors are assessed: How the individual feels about the future, whether they hold positive expectations for it, and whether they have lost their motivation.3 After our previous discussion of how to get through difficult times, it is clear that setbacks, disappointments, traumatic experiences, hardship, pain and loss can severely threaten our hope. Even psychologically strong people can go through periods of hopelessness. And that’s why we all benefit from knowing how we can remedy this dark state of having no hope: The remedy is having goals.
Charles R. Snyder likens hope with a “personal rainbow of the mind”. His Hope Theory places hope as a way of thinking rather than feeling. Although feelings play an important part in hopefulness, Snyder writers, the interviews on which he based his theory showed that hope was primarily linked to people’s self-assessment of how capable they were in findings routes and motivation toward attainment of their goals.4
Three concepts are part of Snyder’s Hope Theory: Positive Goals; Agency, the energy spent toward reaching a goal; and Pathways, the planning engaged in to meet a goal.
According to Snyder, goals provide targets for a series of mental actions. Goals can be visual images or verbally described targets. They can be aimed for in the short or long term, and can be vague or specific. What is required is that a goal has sufficient value to bring about ongoing, conscious thinking about it. Goals can be either something positive one seeks to achieve or something one does to avoid a negative, unwanted situation. Goals can be about improving our day to day living, or encapsulate a grand idea. For some time, Snyder writes, he believed that hope was only strengthened when the probability of achieving a goal was not entirely certain; that goals with either a very high or a very low probability of being attained could not sustain it. But now he views very high and very low probability goals as acceptable objects for hope.5
What does that mean? It means that the many people buying lotto tickets will sustain hope from doing so, regardless of the small probability of them actually winning the jackpot. And anyone who sets a low goal, such as “I just want to get through the day” can also gain hopefulness. And before any of us go ridiculing someone else’s grand idea, perhaps it is worth remembering that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the face of almost absolute certainty that it could not be done.
Agency is about motivation and our mental capacity to begin and continue the thought processes required to pursue a goal. According to Snyder, typical self-talk statements of agency thinking are “I can do this” or “Nothing can stop me”. Agency thinking is very important when we encounter obstacles on our path toward a goal, because it gives us the motivation to find an alternative path or strategy to reach it.6
Pathways is about our thoughts that create the routes to achieve a goal. Snyder argues that it is typical for human beings to think about how they can link their present existence to an imagined future. “It is as if we are constantly thinking about how to get from Point A to Point B”, he writes. Typical affirmations of pathway thinking are “I will find a way” or “I’ll figure it out”.7
Snyder points out that there are high-hope and low-hope people. High-hope individuals tend to choose a plausible, fairly clear pathway to reach their goal, and will have confidence in taking this route. If high-hope individuals encounter road stops, they will be flexible and come up with alternative routes. Importantly, they will feel good about pursuing their goal; excited to take this path, curious about how they will go, and focused in their endeavour.8
Low-hope people differ in that they are more vague about how they will reach their goal. They typically struggle to articulate exactly how they will achieve it. And if or when low-hope individuals face barriers, they may not produce a new strategy and may simply give up. Low-hope people may also experience more negative emotions right from the start. They might feel apprehensive about what is to come, talk themselves down, or lose their focus by ruminating.9
According to Snyder, for most people hopelessness results either from being thwarted in making progress toward personal goals, or from having learnt to feel hopeless through adverse experiences in childhood.10 Whilst being low in hope may not be our fault, the challenge to build it up can only be taken up by us as individuals. My childhood definitely killed off a lot of my hopefulness, and for years I didn’t understand why I found it so hard to generate sustained hope. Being aware of the link of hopefulness to goals has made all the difference.
If you were not taught to think hopefully, or your hopeful thinking was badgered, then it is time for you to generate some goals. Blog posts 15-17 will give you all the know-how for choosing and pursuing your goals. This week think of the personal goals you might have put on the backburner, and new goals that appeal to you, and then take a couple and start creating your pathway to them. Oh – and maybe hang two notes on the fridge: “I can do it”, and “I will find a way!”
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2016