The Psychological Power of Hope to Live a More Fulfilled Life

How to use hope to live a more wholesome life

“There is a popular belief that maintaining hope or optimism may influence survival.” Gail Ironson

Everyday life happens. It might not feel like it but it does. We convince ourselves that when ‘this’ happens we’ll be happy, if we could just do ‘this’ then we’d be living, really living.

The truth though, is that you are living. This (right here, right now, me writing this, you reading it) is the most real thing you’ve got.

We set goals so ambitiously yet deliver so half-heartedly. We read every piece of self-help available to feel like we are working towards where we want to be. But all that ends up happening is that we cycle the same content over and over getting the ‘self-help high’ and nothing else.

In order to pursue your goals, you need to be hopeful that you can achieve the things you are setting out to. You need to believe it.

We Set the Same Goals and Get the Same Outcomes

Every year feels the same. January 1st rolls around and we are hopeful and ambitious about the year ahead.

This year is the year.

We frantically scribble down all our dreams for the year ahead, feeling good that we are starting the year on a fresh, clean slate and we are ready to take this year by storm. Even though you’ve repeated this same sequence every year for the past 5 years, somehow you’ve convinced yourself (yet again) that this year will be different.

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” Narcotics Anonymous

But yet we declare ourselves sane and carry on regardless, this year will be different.

Somewhere between January 4th and January 19th, we fall off the wagon. We don’t carry on because well things get hard but I’m wondering if there’s another reason… is it because we don’t believe we can, is it because we don’t have hope.

Let’s be honest when you write that goal or that ambition, do you really believe you can do it? Is it a ‘yes I am absolutely capable of this!’ or is it a ‘Ummm… I think I’m capable, maybe.”

Maybe the real reason you aren’t delivering on your goals is that you don’t actually believe you can.

Hope is a Pretty Big Deal

There is a difference between thinking you might be capable and being absolutely concrete that you are capable of.

“Hope is probably best conceptualised by Snyder [1] as “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals)”

The paper goes on to state that:

“Hopeful individuals possess positive thinking that is reflective of a realistic sense of optimism [3] as well as the belief that they can produce routes to desired goals.”

It’s that ability to believe that you can produce the routes to the desired goals. It’s easy to write down a goal, it’s harder to be confident that the way you've decided to obtain that goal i.e. the habits, processes, routes you’ve defined as getting you there, will, in fact, get you there.

It’s the difference between saying:

My goal: To become a best-selling author by 2022. (easy to understand, clear)

My path:

  • Write every day on Medium for 3 years
  • Post on the website every day
  • Post on LinkedIn x2 per week
  • Start an email subscriber list

(Decided by me, there is no real way of knowing whether this will absolutely get me to my goal.)

The goal is pretty set in stone but my path or my way to get there is all down to me. That method could not work and equally, it could work. All I can do is hope it does and have the belief that it will.

We spend a lot of time on our goals. We think about how to make them achievable, measurable, realistic, time-bound but we don’t think so much about the method or the path to get to them.

But we know that hope has positive effects on life, regardless of the outcome. In so much to say that whether you get there or not, hope is pretty important in life happiness.

Hope Gives Us More

In the same study, the authors found that possessing hope has positive effects on mood in undergraduates, not only that though, the paper found that because these individuals possess hope they were more resilient to negative life events. Because of their resilience, it was more likely that they would show better athletic, academic, occupational, and health outcomes.

So hope made way for resilience which made way for success.

Hope → Resilience → Success

Most interesting is the effects hope has on survival, on raw physiology, how the brain affects the body.

In 1996 there was a study conducted on 238 cancer patients. The study set out to understand how mindset impacted health. In raw terms, it was about how pessimism impacted mortality. On the 8-month follow-up of the study, 70 of the patients had died. The authors set out to study the impact of a pessimistic and optimistic life in said patients. The findings showed that an orientation towards a pessimistic life is ‘an important factor in mortality’, in so much to say that pessimism impacted mortality negatively.

This information is pretty monumental in that mindset might affect life expectancy. More studies found similar results. A 2003 paper by Paul J Alison looked at cancer patients survival after one year to understand the difference in optimism and pessimism, again this paper concluded the more optimism patients lived longer.

Gail Ironson published a paper in 2005 that set out to understand whether optimism has a positive impact on the rate of progression of HIV in HIV sufferers. The indication of disease progression was through 2 metrics: CD4 count and viral load, this measurement was taken 5 times over 2.5 years. Optimism was concluded by using two different methods which posed questions such as ‘I always look on the bright side of life’. All 177 participants had HIV in the midrange upon entry to the study. I.e. whilst the group was diverse (gender, ethnicity, race, education) the progression of the disease was similar.

The study found that those participants that scored in the 25th percentile of optimism, those low on optimism, lost CD4 cells at a rate 1.55 times faster than those in the 75th percentile of optimism. That is to say, the more optimistic, the slower the disease progression.

You could conclude that optimism is saving these patient’s lives.

How to Get More Hope

So now we hopefully (get it) understand the importance of optimism, we could conclude that the best (and logical) next step is to try and obtain more of it. How do we become more optimistic, how can we improve our outlook?

  1. Reflect on the good things

How many things in life are going well right now? Whether that be your job, your relationships, your health. There will be something (hopefully a lot of things) that are going well for you right now. It’s important to look at these things in detail and give them the focus they deserve. So often we can get hung up on all the bad things going on in the world and not focus on all the good around us. Take a step back and appreciate all the good going on in life right now.

2. Create something to look forward to

No not a goal or something to achieve, something just to look forward to. A holiday, a day off, a long drive somewhere, a walk in the countryside. Something that gives you a sense of excitement and pleasure through the anticipation of them. Giving yourself something to look forward to is rewarding and gives you a positive outlook on the future.

3. Be Logical About the Path You’ve Set

Life is an odd thing. There are no guarantees here but there are case studies that we can lean into to give us confidence that we are going the right way. The good thing about the life we live today is that we can get a detailed look into how people we admire conduct their lives. There is some logic to say that replicating similar activities and habits of those you aspire to be like make sense. If they go to where they did by doing those things, what’s to say you won’t.

Use resources to help cement the path you are on as the right one. Largely if you are cultivating good habits, practising intentionally, learning constantly then in many respects, you are already winning.

In Summary

Hope is quite a phenomenon. In a hopeful mindset, life seems achievable, sunny and full. In that state, you feel capable of absolutely anything as if your goals and ambitions are completely within your reach.

It makes sense to lean into hope and optimism often to give you the motivation and inspiration to keep working towards where you want to go. Being hopeful that you will achieve the things you’ve set out to will, so the science says, make you more resilient so when you come to the point where you feel like giving up, where things aren’t working, you keep chipping away.

More importantly, though, hope gives you a sense of belonging, that you are on the right path and that is often a source of complete dissatisfaction for a lot of people.

Optimism and hope is quite a powerful mindset, in studies its show exciting evidence of increasing lifespans in patients with terminal diseases. If it can do that, it can certainly increase your productivity and the likelihood of achieving your dreams.

340k+ views. Science-led self-help. BSc Biomedical Science, studying MSc Behavioural Science.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store