Hope Is an Engine for Personal and Community Progress

We often view hope as a feeling that reflects our outlook on something we wish for. Sometimes we feel hope in positive situations, such as eagerly awaiting news of a job offer or promotion. Here, hope embodies our enthusiasm and anticipation that our desires will be fulfilled. Conversely, hope can also emerge during challenging times, such as when a loved one receives a serious medical diagnosis. In these moments, hope signifies our optimism and determination that what we fear can be averted and that things will improve, even against seemingly insurmountable odds. In both scenarios, hope lies at the center of our aspirations and goals; it is what keeps our dreams alive and fuels us to persist. Indeed, thirty-plus years of psychological research confirm that hope is an essential psychological ingredient for progress. Drawing from this body of knowledge, I want to share the advantages of hope for personal and community growth and provide simple strategies for individuals to nurture hope within themselves and spread it within their communities.

The Benefits of Hope

Much of the psychological research has been based on Charles R. Snyder’s aptly named hope theory. Hope theory defines hope as less of a feeling and more of a way of thinking about goals. Goals are what people desire—outcomes that we want to achieve or see happen. The hopeful mindset is made up of two distinct types of thinking: pathway thinking and agency thinking. Pathway thinking describes our thoughts about how a goal will be accomplished; it may involve thinking through the steps one needs to take, choosing a specific success strategy, or identifying what needs to happen to realize a desired outcome. Agency thinking is a person’s enduring belief that they will achieve the goal or outcome they desire.

As the old saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” goes, agency thinking (the will) and pathway thinking (the way) go hand in hand to maintain hope. Understanding how to pursue a goal (pathway thinking) inspires positive beliefs about goal success (agency thinking). On the flip side, feeling confident that one can realize a goal (agency thinking) can stimulate creative and flexible strategies to navigate roadblocks along the path to success (pathway thinking).

Psychologists have validated survey measures of hope that assess pathway thinking and agency thinking generally and in response to changing situations. These measures have been translated into dozens of languages, and decades of research conducted around the globe has found numerous personal benefits of a hopeful mindset. Hopeful people tend to be psychologically and physically healthier, more resilient, and more successful. Hopeful people perform better at school, in their jobs, and athletic pursuits. Hope is also an asset for parents. Hopeful parents tend to have more positive relationships with their children and cope more effectively with parental stress. Hope spreads in families; research shows that parents who are emotionally supportive yet encourage a healthy amount of personal autonomy raise children who have higher self-esteem, are generally happier, and are more hopeful.

Communities also benefit from hope. For example, research suggests that people who feel hopeful are more inclined to give back through community service and charitable giving. When people have hope, they can envision a community with a future worth investing in. Hopeful people are also likely to take action in their community advocating for change and getting involved in cooperative solutions to community problems. Finally, hope can help heal cultural, religious, and/or ideological divisions in communities. Several studies have found that bringing opposing factions of people together to share their visions of hope for the future has led to forgiveness, reduced prejudice, and inspired collaborative solutions to resolving conflict.

Inspiring Hope

Given the benefits of hope for healthy individuals and communities, researchers have investigated ways to promote it. Most hope interventions involve applying elements of Hope Therapy. Hope Therapy is an eight-week formal small-group therapy where trained therapists guide groups of 4-10 people through various activities and homework assignments meant to educate participants about hope theory; strengthen skills related to goal setting, pathway thinking, and agency thinking; and encourage participants to apply hope-related skills to their lives. For example, a goal-setting activity might guide participants through the process of setting achievable and measurable goals, whereas an activity to strengthen pathways might involve participants visualizing the steps they would take to make progress toward their goal. There is also evidence supporting the efficacy of less intense hope interventions that can be delivered in single-session workshops and with minimal training.

Hope Therapy and other hope interventions are effective in getting people to adopt a more hopeful mindset about their aspirations and goals and to positively impact psychological health. Participants report increases in self-esteem and purpose in life and a decrease in depression and anxiety. Hope interventions are particularly beneficial for people going through stressful life circumstances such as marital conflict/divorce or dealing with a chronic disease.

Of course, most people have never heard of Hope Therapy and probably have not had the opportunity to enroll in a hope workshop at their local community center or YCMA. However, there are simple ways to encourage a hopeful mindset in yourself and others. One thing hope interventions have in common is that they put goals front and center and get people to think about how they can be successful in actualizing their goals. We can do this in our own lives by being more effortful in thinking about our goals and how we go about pursuing them.

Another insight from the hope intervention research is that hope is sustained when goals are realistic, actionable, and measurable. In other words, we feel hopeful when we understand what we need to do day-to-day to make progress toward our goals and can monitor our progress. Sometimes, we are ambitious and set goals beyond our reach or goals that are too abstract and don’t offer an opportunity for us to gauge whether we are getting closer to our desires or further away. Without realistic and measurable goals, we may experience uncertainty and come to doubt we will accomplish our goals (low agency thinking) and question or abandon our strategies (low pathway thinking). A goal diary might be a useful strategy for planning and measuring goal progress. Indeed, one research study found that having college students journal about the importance of their goals and the progress they had made toward their goals every day for a week increased hope.

Another commonality in formal hope interventions is that they involve positive thinking practices. Research on Hope Therapy suggests that simple “self-talk” exercises can promote agency thinking and play a role in building and sustaining self-esteem. Of course, intrusive negative thoughts may pop up now and again, but it is key to identify these negative thoughts and combat them with positive thinking. One of the most robust ways to sustain the belief that you have what it takes to achieve a goal is to recognize success, even small successes. This is another reason why realistic and measurable goals are important. Try breaking down the goal into small actions rather than large milestones. Want to write a book? Start with committing to writing each day for 30 minutes. Accomplishing this simple action feels good and can over time strengthen agency thinking. Moreover, reflecting on our successes can be helpful when we feel lost, filled with doubt, or lacking motivation to help us push past negative thinking to identify alternate pathways.

A final lesson from research on Hope Therapy is that hope groups can help sustain and spread hope. Nearly all hope interventions are group-based, and for good reason; other people can help us maintain a hopeful mindset by offering a supportive ear or a voice of encouragement. Moreover, friends and family can be allies in the goal process by helping us plan realistic goals, keeping us accountable, and helping us monitor and mark our progress.

Hope can also be spread in groups. It is spread any time a hopeful person assists another in goal planning or gives them feedback about their progress. One place this has been studied is in the workplace. Hopeful bosses/managers are those who are respectful of their employees and include them in organizational goal-setting. They are also good delegators and communicators, providing employees with clear feedback and regularly updating them on organizational goal progress. Employees who work for hopeful managers report feeling more hopeful about their career aspirations and in turn more productive and more satisfied in their work.

Other research has shown that hope can be spread when people share their hopeful visions of the future. This can happen at the community level. For example, research has found that community programming focused on sharing individual visions of hope inspires community hope and togetherness. These programs allow people from different backgrounds to see that they have similar hopes and dreams and begin to come up with ways to actualize them. Community leaders can also spread hope by sharing credible visions of hope and by showing citizens how they can get involved. When people can see the pathway and feel confident that the hopeful vision will be actualized, they are compelled to invest in themselves and their communities.

Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social and Existential Motives Lab at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and a fellow with the Flourishing in Action project at the Archbridge Institute’s Human Flourishing Lab. He is a social psychologist who studies how people satisfy the psychological needs for meaning in life and social belonging. Dr. Abeyta’s research focuses on psychological factors, like the experience of nostalgia, religion, and supernatural beliefs, that promote social belonging and meaning in life. Additionally, Dr Abeyta’s research is interested in the implications of the needs for meaning in life and social belonging for human flourishing, psychological resilience, and human agency. Dr. Abeyta earned his BA in psychology from Colorado College, his MA in experimental psychology from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and his PhD in social and health psychology from North Dakota State University.
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