Hope is more than wishful thinking. It’s a blend of optimism and willpower.

You have $1.79 in your bank account, your rent is due today, and you don’t get paid for a week. Is it still possible to have hope that your finances will improve?

Absolutely. Hope can exist even alongside the most difficult situations and emotions. Hope is much more than wishful thinking, as it requires optimism and willpower.

Hope is a state of mind that can be learned.

Hope is the belief that your future will be better than the present and that you have the ability to make it happen. It involves both optimism and a can-do attitude.

This definition of hope is based on “Hope Theory,” a positive psychology concept developed by American psychologist Charles Snyder.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living. This branch of psychology focuses on developing strengths and positive traits rather than healing weaknesses or disease.

According to hope theory, hope has three distinct parts:

  • Goals. Having a goal is the cornerstone of hope. Goals can be big or small. You can have a goal to go to college or to begin practicing yoga.
  • Agency (willpower). Agency is the ability to stay motivated to meet your goal. It involves believing that good things will come from your actions.
  • Pathways. These are the specific routes you develop to meet your goals. If your first pathway doesn’t work, you problem-solve to find a new pathway. High-hope people understand that roadblocks are inevitable and that it might take several tries to reach your goals.

Is hope an emotion?

While hope certainly involves our emotions, hope itself is not an emotion. Hope is a way of thinking or a state of being. This means that hope can be taught.

Hope is also distinct from a wish. Hope involves taking action toward a goal, while a wish is out of your control. For instance, if you’re at a restaurant and say, “I hope my food comes out hot,” that’s actually a wish because you have no control over it.

Types of goals

There are two types of goal outcomes in hope theory: positive (the presence of something) and negative (the absence of something).

Type 1: Positive goal outcome

  • Reaching a goal for the first time. You want to buy a new car.
  • Sustaining a present goal. You want to continue making payments on your car so you can keep it.
  • Increasing something that’s already begun. You want to become a better driver.

Type 2: Negative goal outcome

  • Deterring something so that it never happens. You eat fruits and vegetables every day to avoid getting sick.
  • Deterring something so that it is delayed. You ask for a payment extension, so you don’t have to pay your bill yet.

Examples of hope

Hope theory trains you to unlock hope in all life areas, including exceptional and mundane situations.

Example 1. John is severely depressed and has been in bed for three days. He knows he’ll feel better if he can get more active today.

Goal. John makes a goal to be a little more active today.

Agency. It’s hard to have willpower with depression, but John motivates himself with the fact that he’ll feel better if he gets out of bed.

Pathways. John makes a plan to take a hot shower, cook a small breakfast, and take a walk around the block. If one of these pathways fails, perhaps he’ll write in his journal or call a friend.

Example 2. Jenny just found out she has diabetes. While the news is sudden and unnerving, she’s determined to stay hopeful.

Goal. Jenny makes a goal to get as healthy as possible.

Agency. She takes inventory of her motivation. She knows her goal is achievable if she perseveres. She knows she wants to get well for her loved ones and herself.

Pathways. Jenny develops several different strategies to meet her goal of getting healthy. She develops a healthy eating plan, a daily exercise regimen, and decides to learn all she can about diabetes.

High-hope people fare better in several areas of life.

According to Snyder’s hope theory, higher levels of hope are consistently linked to better outcomes regarding mental health, physical health, academics, athletics, physical health, and psychotherapy.

Psychological benefits of hope

High-hope people tend to have higher levels of overall well-being.

In one study, researchers looked at hope and well-being in a sample of nearly 13,000 participants. The team discovered that high-hope participants reported the following:

Physical benefits of hope

In the same study of nearly 13,000 participants, researchers found that high levels of hope also made an impact on physical health.

According to the findings, high-hope people experienced the following:

  • better physical health
  • reduced risk of all-cause mortality
  • fewer number of chronic illnesses
  • lower risk of cancer
  • fewer sleep problems

Social benefits of hope

As mentioned above, having high levels of hope is linked to less loneliness. Having more positive emotions can also help you develop stronger relationships with others.

In a 6-year study of 975 adolescents (grades 7-12), hope predicted future well-being, particularly in important transition years (starting high school). The researchers determined that hope is an important attribute that encourages positive youth development.

The good news is that hope is a learned skill, and just about anyone can learn to be more hopeful.

  • Think of your goals as exciting challenges. Consistently imagine how you’ll feel when you get there.
  • Be flexible and creative. When brainstorming your pathways, develop a Plan A, B, C, D, etc.
  • Increase your motivation. What strengths can you draw on to achieve your goals? What is currently working for you? When were you successful in similar situations and why?
  • Expect roadblocks. Remember that most things of value don’t come easily.
  • Persist, even under stressful conditions. This will help develop your coping skills which will continue to help you reach your goals under pressure.
  • Take it one step at a time. If you’re struggling to reach your goals, think of one small step you can take each day.
  • Keep your goals high but realistic. False hope is actually a result of low hope.
  • Turn to humor. When you’re feeling hopeless, watch a funny movie. A 2003 study found that laughter can increase our levels of hope.
  • Gain strength from others. When you feel discouraged, listen to an inspiring podcast or read the memoir of someone who’s overcome overwhelming obstacles.

Hope is the belief that your future will be better than today and that you’re able to make it happen. It involves optimism, motivation, and strategy.

The best part about hope is that it’s a learned skill. With practice, you can develop a hopeful attitude which will improve your mental and physical health and even reduce your risk of death.

If you start to lose hope, remember that you are not alone. You can always reach out to loved ones for help or speak with a therapist to develop strategies to regain your hope.