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Approaching Hope

By C. R. Snyder

Dictionary definitions of hope usually reflect an expectation of success in the pursuit of desired goals. Consider as an example the words of an entering college student, who announces to her friends and family, "I hope to graduate in four years." A recent definition of hope that has received considerable attention has partitioned this goal-directed thinking into two components, corresponding to the "will" and the "way" of the old expression "where there's a will, there's a way." First, people believe that they have the capacities to come up with the routes to desired goals. This is called pathways thinking. Second, when people believe that they have the requisite motivations to actually use such routes, this is called agency thinking. To hope is to have both the will (agency) and the ways (pathways) to pursue desired goals.

A History of Hope

[Cocoon/Getty Images]

Let's back up in time and explore the tale that is by far the most well known in regard to hope--the story about Pandora. According to Greek mythology, Zeus was furious with humans for having robbed fire from the gods. To extract revenge against humankind, Zeus fashioned a gorgeous maiden named Pandora and sent her on a journey to Earth. She was to take her dowry chest with her, but in what may be one of the first recorded examples of reverse psychology, Zeus admonished Pandora not to look inside her dowry chest. When Pandora finally reached Earth, of course, the first thing that she did was to open the lid to take a peek. This was the very behavior that Zeus had counted on, and negative forces were released from the dowry chest upon the people of Earth. There was rheumatism, colic and gout for the body, as well as spite, envy and revenge for the mind. Panicked at what she had done, Pandora rushed to replace the lid. In so doing, all that was left was the hope that was stuck beneath the lid.

Given the attention that has been given to hope over the ages, it must be that it did escape from Pandora's dowry. Unfortunately, for the most part, hope has been viewed as being just as awful as the other forces that did escape. Indeed, the list of people who have viewed hope negatively reads like a "Who's Who." Plato suggested that hope was a "foolish counselor." Sophocles held that human suffering was prolonged by hope. Benjamin Franklin observed that the person who lives on hope will die fasting. There also were many others who argued either that hope was an illusion or that it will not last. All of these negative viewpoints can be contrasted with the minority perspective in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where hope was portrayed as a virtue (along with charity and faith).

Scientific approaches for examining hope did not begin until the 1950s, when mental health professionals defined hope in terms of positive goal expectancies--similar to dictionary descriptions. Increasingly in the last two decades of the 20th century, scholars turned their attention toward hope, and in the 1990s an approach known as "hope theory" captured attention by defining hope as the perceived capacity to find routes to desired goals (pathways thinking), in conjunction with the motivations to use those routes (agency thinking). Such hopeful thinking does not appear to be based on genetic inheritance, but instead reflects learning experiences over the course of childhood. Finally, hope theory is an example of an emerging 21st-century viewpoint called positive psychology in which the emphasis is on the strengths of people rather than their weaknesses.

Can Hope Be Measured?

Shortly after the introduction of hope theory, self-reporting scales based on this definition were developed and validated. The most widely used instrument is a trait-like index called the Hope Scale. This Hope Scale for adults consists of eight items on which respondents rate how true each item is of them. There are four pathways items (e.g., "I can think of many ways to get out of a jam") and four agency items (e.g., "I energetically pursue my goals"). Summing across the eight items, the total Hope Scale score is derived.

Other hope scales, such as a hope scale for children and one to tap adult hope in particular life domains (e.g., work, school, relationships, etc.), have since been developed. Thus, there are reliable and valid instruments for measuring hope.

High- vs. Low-Hope People

There have been many studies in which the researchers have administered one of these hope measures, and then ascertained how the people who scored higher in hope fared in regard to several other markers. Across such studies, children and adults who scored higher in hope have: (1) coped better with injuries, diseases and physical pain; (2) scored higher in satisfaction, self-esteem, optimism, meaning in life and happiness; (3) performed better in sports; and (4) excelled in academics (elementary to graduate school). What is especially compelling about these hope findings for sports and academics is that they have occurred beyond the predictions that are caused by natural abilities. That is to say, hope predicted sports performances even when the participants' natural athletic talents were statistically adjusted for. Similarly, when intelligence was corrected statistically, hope still predicted academic performances. Studies to date have not found that men or women differ in their scores on hope. Likewise, persons from varying ethnic or minority backgrounds do not appear to have inherently different levels of hope.

Making several paths to each of one's goals increases one's level of hope   [Phil Schermeister/Uniphoto]

Persons who are higher in hope consistently have displayed more beneficial outcomes in a variety of life arenas.

Studies have shown that hopeful thinking can be increased. Successful programs have been implemented for couples and groups, as well as in one-on-one contexts. In one case, over 10 group sessions, a group of older adults who were depressed learned how to improve their goal-setting priorities, along with how to enhance their capacities to find pathways to their desired goals and to motivate themselves to use those routes. Relative to a control group--of elders who underwent reminiscence treatment in which they recalled enjoyable previous experiences that took place during their younger years--the elders trained in hope-enhancing skills showed a significant lessening of their depression, as measured by both self-reporting and behavioral markers.

In another study, outpatients at a community mental health center were first taught hope theory principles before entering their normal treatments. Relative to patients who did not get this hope education program, those who did receive such education significantly improved over the course of their later treatments. A third treatment involved videotaped hopeful narratives that were administered to female survivors of childhood incest. Compared to the control group of women who viewed a tape of nature scenes, those who viewed the hopeful tape reported consistently higher levels of hope. Furthermore, educational programs for teaching goal-directed thinking to grade school to college students have produced improvements in hope.

Such studies demonstrate that across a variety of relationships (e.g., with psychotherapists and their patients, physicians and their patients, teachers and their students, coaches and players, bosses and employees, etc.) hope is the core shared process that facilitates positive changes.

Raising Hope in Adults

In this closing section, tips for helping adults raise their hope levels are offered in terms of setting goals, finding the requisite pathways to those goals and becoming motivated.

Goal Tips

• Become more aware of the decisions you are making about important goals.
• Set a goal because it is something you really want, not what another wants for you.
• Make goals that stretch you in that they are set at a somewhat higher level than your previous performances.
• Produce several goals in different areas (e.g., relationships, friendships, career, etc.).
• Rank goals from most to least important.
• Select a few most important goals on which to work.
• Make recognizable markers for each goal.
• Be sure to set aside sufficient time for the important goals.
• Do not let yourself be interrupted as you work on these important goals.

Pathways Tips

• Make several paths to each of your goals.
• Choose the best path for each goal.
• Take long-range goals and break them down into steps.
• Start with the first step.
• Mentally go over what you would do if you should run into a blockage.
• When a route does not work, do not blame yourself. By knowing what strategy does not work, realize that this will help you find another route that will work.
• If you need a new skill to implement a route to a desired goal, take time to learn it.
• Ask for help from others in planning how to get to a desired goal.

Agency Tips

• Learn how to talk to yourself in positive voices (e.g., "I can do this!").
• Look ahead to think about any roadblocks that may happen.
• View problems as challenges.
• Recall your earlier successes, especially when you are in a jam.
• Learn to laugh at yourself, and enjoy a good laugh with your friends.
• Redefine or find a substitute goal.
• Enjoy getting to your goals as much as reaching them.
• Get enough sleep.
• Eat several small meals, and eat more of your food earlier in the day.
• Cut back on cigarettes and alcohol, along with caffeine-laden products.
• Get vigorous physical exercise.
• Get sufficient bright lighting (preferably sunlight) to your eyes.

These various approaches have helped other people enhance their hopeful thinking. Remember, also, that it is not necessary to implement all of these tips, but adding a few to one's life can help enhance hopeful thinking. High-hope people also enjoy being around other people. If those other people also have a sense of zest for their lives, this is likely to rub off on the people who are around them. Although there is no one recipe for imparting hope, realizing that one can learn to think this way is crucial for becoming more hopeful. So too should it be remembered that the lessons in hopeful thinking begin at birth and continue throughout all the subsequent days of one's life.

[Michael Bader/Uniphoto]

The Hope Scale

Directions: Read each item carefully. Using the scale shown below, please select the number that best describes YOU and put that number in the blank provided.

Definitely False Mostly False Somewhat False Slightly False Slightly True Somewhat True Mostly True Definitely True
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

1. I can think of many ways to get out of a jam. ____
2. I energetically pursue my goals. ____
3. There are lots of ways around any problem. ____
4. I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are most important to me. ____
5. Even when others get discouraged, I know I can find a way to solve the problem. ____
6. My past experiences have prepared me well for my future. ____
7. I've been pretty successful in life. ____
8. I meet the goals that I set for myself. ____

Notes: The pathways subscale score is the sum of items 1, 3, 4 & 5; the agency subscale score is the sum of items 2, 6, 7 & 8. Hope is the sum of the four pathways and four agency items. Scores can range from a low of 8 to a high of 64.

[From C. R. Snyder, Harris et al., The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (c) 1991, vol. 60, p. 585. Reprinted with permission of the American Psychological Association and the author. The scale can be used for research or clinical purposes without contacting the author.]

C. R. Snyder is Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. His book The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There from Here is published by Free Press. He also has written five other books on hope.

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