“However long the night, the dawn will break.”
― African Proverb (Hausa Tribe)
Since time immemorial, civilizations across the world have celebrated Spring as a powerful symbol of rejuvenation. After crossing the threshold of the first day of Spring, we turn our attention to what lies ahead for our lives. As the surrounding flora and fauna come alive, we ask ourselves: what is the promise of this new beginning? Which parts of us do we wish to further cultivate, expand and empower? And as we leave Winter behind, what are the parts of ourselves that we are ready to shed because they no longer serve us?
In short, Spring and its new beginnings often “spring” from an initial point of reflection and introspection. Spring, which historically signifies rebirth, stands in juxtaposition to the months of hibernation (literal or figurative) from which life emerges. As we look forward to longer days and warmer temperatures, the promise of new things to come glows in the horizon.
Regardless of the season, nothing says rebirth quite like the concept of hope. Like an ever-burning Olympic flame, hope implies the dawn rising out of the darkness, sunshine making its way around black clouds or long-manifest desires and longings fulfilled.
The Greatest Antidote to Despair
As a Manhattan psychiatrist who treats patients for anxiety, depression, loss, despair and heartbreak, I have learned that helping my patients to cultivate and maintain hope is one of the most powerful antidotes to mental and physical despair. In the face of adversity, setbacks, a negative outcome or grim prognosis, we do not have to abandon our dreams or give up hope. Our obstacles may simply be the darkness that precedes the dawn.
But in the throes of despair, it’s not always helpful to be told to “look on the bright side” or “never give up hope.” When hope has been lost, platitudes seem futile or just like rationalized ways of engaging in self-deception. Indeed, there is a whole scientific literature on the concept of false hope. False hope entails three things: (a) expectations based on illusions rather than reality, (b) inappropriate goals, and (c) poor strategies to reach these goals. However, a deeper exploration into the true nature of hope suggests it’s anything but self-deception.
The Greeks have a saying, “If it were not for hope, the heart would break.” This echoes the Ancient Aboriginal proverb, “Keep your eyes on the sun and you will not see the shadows.” Science supports this hope-embracing wisdom. Research has shown that hope helps people to develop and sustain psychological well-being, positive emotions and enhanced coping skills. Having hope reduces burnout among competitive athletes, helps people cope with the death of loved ones, improves sports and academic performance, sustains a “fighting spirit” through cancer diagnoses and even increases one’s tolerance of physical pain. In essence, hope underscores the simple words of peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
The Psychology of Hope
Long a central topic of research in the field of positive psychology, hope refers to an individual’s goal-oriented expectations. According to psychologist Charles R. Snyder, hope is made up of two components: agency thinking, which is the motivation to initiate and sustain actions to achieve goals, and pathway thinking, which is the capacity to find ways towards achieving those goals. Both need to exist simultaneously. One can’t reach his or her goals without motivation, and seeing concrete pathways forward is important to fuel motivation. A deficit in either of the above can lead people to feel stuck in life.
Another key component of cultivating hope is that hopeful individuals view life through a learning orientation. They are actively engaged in setting meaningful goals, planning strategies to reach their goals, modifying strategies that don’t work, flexibly adapting to challenges and monitoring their progress to stay on track. In other words, they are learning as they go, every step of the way. In contrast, individuals who lack hope choose easy tasks that don’t offer opportunities for learning or growth. If and when they fail, they quit.
But aren’t some adversities so awful that anybody would lose hope?
Hopeful Despite All Odds
History shows us countless examples of people who faced such tremendous adversity that they had every reason to lose hope and quit – but they didn’t. For example, in spite of 27 years of solitary confinement and excessive harassment in prison, Nelson Mandela never lost hope for an end to apartheid and a free, democratic South Africa. A more recent example is the world’s youngest Nobel Peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai. Malala was shot in the head for going to school and then speaking out on behalf of girls’ education in her home country of Pakistan, where the local Taliban banned girls from attending school. Despite a near fatal injury, Malala rose above her pain and continues to advocate for girls’ education around the world.
A portrait of Malala Yousafzai. This image was originally posted to Flickr by DFID – UK Department for International Development. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
You might be thinking, “But I’m no Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai! How can I summon this kind of hope amidst my own obstacles and hardships? And what if I’m just not a naturally hopeful person?”
Hopeful through Thick and Thin
Researchers categorize people as either exhibiting hope as a trait or a state. Those with the hope trait are naturally hopeful, or often referred to as “glass half full.” Unsurprisingly, this is a minority of the population. For most of the rest of us, hope can and needs to be cultivated as a state. By choosing to maintain a learning orientation, for instance, the act of hoping becomes a willful and deliberate act in which any of us can engage, as opposed to an inborn trait for the lucky few.
The good news: cultivating hope is possible for all of us. Many assume that when one feels hopeless, it’s impossible to think one’s way towards feeling hopeful. But the opposite is true. Research confirms time and again that emotions follow cognition.
Moreover, once one learns how to cultivate hope, it’s self-perpetuating. According to Anthony Scioli, a professor of psychology at Keene State College in New Hampshire and author of The Power of Hope, hopeful people are more resilient, trusting, open and motivated. Because of this, they are more likely to receive more from the world. This in turn makes them more hopeful.
Three Steps to Cultivating Hope
The following steps can help you cultivate hope, especially in the most difficult of times:
Step 1: Reflect on Your Pain
When we’re faced with an obstacle, it’s inevitable to feel pain and sometimes feel sorry for ourselves. But the same pain that so hurts us is also often our wisest teacher and greatest guide. For this reason, reflecting on your own pain is an important part of any healing process. For people who don’t particularly like to feel difficult emotions or have been socialized to “buck up” in the face of adversity, it may be tempting to skip this step. But this step is crucial to moving beyond your pain.
Remember the old saying, “What we resist, persists.” If you try to push your pain away or avoid it, it can come back with a vengeance. Feeling your pain enables you to metabolize it, hear what it is trying to tell you and really make peace with it. This doesn’t always make the pain go away, but it makes the pain accessible to you so you can sit with it, watch it and slowly, over time, recognize that you are in control of your pain rather than it controlling you. Mindfulness meditations and journaling, whereby one writes about their pain to release it, are two ways to metabolize and move through your pain.
Step 2: Relinquish Victim Mentality
We’ve all been there. As we wallow in self-pity or drown in our own rage, it’s not uncommon to want to blame other people or assume that bad things only happen to us. But the blame game will only get you so far. Victim mentality robs us of our agency, hope and motivation, while preventing us from taking full responsibility for where we currently are in life. Yes, sometimes it’s much easier to blame an unjust world, terrible circumstances, a difficult childhood or a cruel God for the hardships that befall us. Although blaming others can give us a temporary illusion of control, in the long run it will only bring us back to the self-pity and rage with which we started. While we often can’t change what has happened to us, we can certainly shift how we respond to our circumstances.
A powerful example of this is Viennese psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl. In witnessing hundreds of prisoners, Frankl observed that “in the concentration camp where all external freedoms were stripped away…no one can control what we think in our minds.” In other words, directing one’s thoughts often meant the difference between survival and death. Frankl watched as many prisoners became sick with malaria, while others remained healthy. Some deliberately ran into electric wires to electrocute themselves to death, while others chose to remain alive. The conditions were so horrific, that it would have been understandable for every prisoner to suffer miserably and lose hope. Yet Frankl tells us from firsthand experience that some were able to remain amazingly positive amidst the adversity. They had every reason to see themselves as victims, but ultimately chose to relinquish victim mentality and maintain hope.
Step 3: Finding Meaning in Your Pain
Finding meaning in your pain is the third and perhaps most important step of this process. What is your pain trying to tell you? Perhaps the adversity you are facing is a call for you to learn something new, make changes in your life or cultivate different aspects of yourself? Adversity is often a wake-up call to do things we know we should have been doing all along, such as taking better care of our health, learning how to better manage our finances, leaving a destructive relationship, prioritizing important relationships or dedicating ourselves to an important cause. Those who find meaning in their pain are able to move from hopelessness and disempowerment to growth and empowerment. Although we cannot always understand why adversity strikes, we can find some solace in the words of Václav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Finding meaning in our pain and suffering often creates the difference between hope and despair.
Ultimately, Spring brings us the opportunity to grow the most potent flower of all: hope. Hope is the fruit that comes from properly reflecting on the root of one’s pain and ultimately taking ownership of it and one’s own life. As Christopher Reeve once powerfully stated, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”
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