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‘Hope’ isn’t mere wishful thinking – it’s a valuable tool we can put to work in a crisis

Little girl holding rainbow drawing up to the window.

The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world has prompted job losses and business closures, and an increase in stress and anxiety as lockdowns separate people from their friends and families. It’s become clear that we are struggling to maintain our mental health as the world changes around us, and the stability of incomes and social lives evaporate. The negative effects on our collective mental health are likely to be exacerbated, given indications that many parts of the world face a second spike in infections, and potentially further lockdowns.

At times like this it’s important not to lose hope. But we can do more than just “hope for the best”. Hope theory, a branch of positive psychology, offers insights and practical strategies that may be helpful.

The American psychologist Charles Snyder, a prominent researcher of hope, wrote in his book Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There that hope is generated when people make connections between their current situation and a desired future state. Snyder’s idea is that once the desired future state has been identified, two things are needed in order to make progress: the ability to identify possible ways towards the desired future state (“pathways thinking”), and a sense of agency (“agency thinking”) that allows the individual to believe they can achieve it. When these three elements are in place, hope builds motivation for change within us, and enhances our sense of wellbeing.

This is an approach not just for the desperate, or those we might think of as in most need of “hope”. I’ve argued elsewhere that in fact the role of experienced executive coaches is to help their clients identify genuine reasons to have hope for the future.

Harnessing hope

This approach to hope has significant implications for us now, in the midst of the pandemic. Bombarded by bad news, alarming statistics and hypothetical worst-case scenarios, we should turn our attention to the possibility of a more positive future. This is not to say that the current reality should be ignored – it’s quite normal to be concerned when facing a deadly threat. It’s more about developing a healthy balance between experiencing appropriate anxiety and imagining better days ahead. In fact it is essential that we do this, for our own good.

Governments must play their part in creating environments that are conducive to hope by offering a plausible and positive image of what the future might hold after COVID-19. After all, we are more likely to be motivated by an idea that seems possible. Claims that COVID-19 will just “go away” or making promises of a “moonshot” that will provide daily tests in six months time seem far-fetched considering current circumstances. When such promises are inevitably broken, hopefulness is replaced with feelings of despair and helplessness.

It is important that a vision for the future is believable, but it should also be desirable. If people are attracted to the idea of a better future, they will be more accepting of the inconvenience of adhering to safety guidelines, more likely to take extra precautions, more inclined to support the vulnerable and in general more committed to concerted collective action. So the way governments identify their key targets is important.

Scrabble letters spelling 'chance' altered to 'change'
Put to work, hope is not wishful thinking but the motivation for change. Monster Ztudio/Shutterstock

Psychologists Andrew Elliot and Ken Sheldon have proposed that framing goals as a way of avoiding undesirable outcomes can lead to negative feelings and decreased satisfaction with life. They found that, in contrast, those goals that focus on achieving a desired outcome led to increased engagement and greater energy.

For example, the UK government’s current objectives could be characterised as “avoidance goals”: not overwhelming the NHS, not exceeding 20 cases per 100,000 people, not causing mass unemployment, avoiding a second national lockdown. These may move people to action, but they generate a negative impact on our collective wellbeing. Governments would be advised to adopt the alternative approach instead, reframing government priorities in a positive way: managing COVID-19 cases sufficiently to open schools, implementing a testing system at airports to allow for safer international travel, or working towards making an effective vaccine widely available.

A note of caution

I’ve argued that the practical application of hope is important – but it could also hold us back. The concept is integral to many faiths, and is widely understood in this context of belief in a greater power and expectations of life after death. But in everyday conversation the word is used loosely, from “I hope you get better” to “I hope we have good weather”. Used in this way the motivating effect is critically undermined – such hopes are just wishful thinking, because these outcomes are not something that individual effort can have any impact on.

We must develop a shared vision of a positive future. For example, we might agree that by December, we will have clear and common guidelines that allow us to work and study safely while protecting the most vulnerable in our society so that people can enjoy their winter holiday with loved ones. Plausible and positive common goals will increase our propensity to be hopeful for the future, and give us the energy and incentive to work towards those goals, generating greater enthusiasm and hope as we see that progress is being made.

Used to best effect, hope can steer us through challenging times and help us to sustain our mental health and wellbeing. There is a saying, “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst” that is unhelpful, and better replaced with something that shows what hope can do: “Hope for a better future; start acting to make it happen”.

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