Do you think of yourself as a hopeful person? According to psychological research, realistic hoping is different from pie-in-the-sky wishing or feeling an emotional high. Practicing realistic hope helps us achieve our goals, and it builds our confidence, optimism, and resilience along the way.
In this article I’ll share what realistic hope is (and what is is not), along with a practical exercise for increasing your own hope.
What is Hope?
A hopeful person perseveres toward goals and when necessary, redirects their paths in order to succeed. Hope is associated with many positive outcomes, including increases in health, accomplishment, performance - and ultimately - happiness.
A common misconception is that hope is wishful thinking. For example, we may say we “hope” that the weather is nice tomorrow, but we have no control over that…so it’s really a wish.
In contrast, psychological researchers define hope in relation to things we want and have control over, such as when we set goals to improve our health, relationships, or work. When we believe we can attain our goals and adjust our course as needed to keep moving toward them, we are exhibiting hope.
Hope is also different from optimism. Optimistic thinkers believe that the future will be better than the present. Hopeful thinkers believe this too, but they add an important ingredient to their mindset: the conviction that we can play a role in making the future better.
The Hope Cycle
There are three key elements to hope, sometimes referred to as "The Hope Cycle" because when developed together they create a continuous feedback loop which reinforces self-belief, drives forward momentum, and increases goal attainment. Developing the three components of hope creates an upward spiral effect, in which our hopeful self-belief and agility lead to success, which empowers us to set and and work toward more goals, which helps us develop more self-belief and agility, and so on.
The simple act of setting a clear and realistic goal is a hope-building exercise. When we create goals, we are envisioning a positive future. Our motivation increases when we set our own meaningful goals and/or when assigned goals are aligned with something we believe in and can commit to. When our goals stretch, challenge, and excite us, we become more creative and more capable of finding ways to achieve them. All this creates a forward-looking, hopeful focus - a compelling sense of moving toward a positive future.
Put simply, agency is "willpower" or determination to keep moving toward goals. Agency is what drives us onward, pouring our energy into making progress on the things that matter most to us. We can build agency by breaking large goals into smaller and more manageable milestones, rewarding ourselves for incremental progress, and building up our internal and external resources which will help us take the necessary steps toward reaching our goal. Agency is necessary for achieving our goals, but it's not enough on its own; we also need Pathways.
Pathways are the "waypower"or agility to circumvent the inevitable obstacles we meet along the path toward achieving our goals. When we approach our goals with a pathways perspective, we accept that there is probably not a straight and simple path from where we are now to where we want to be. When we accept that we will face challenges and proactively anticipate what they might be, we prepare ourselves to be flexible and positive when we hit bumps along the way, knowing that trying a different path is a natural part of the process. Sometimes we even need to do what's known as "re-goaling," which means adjusting our goals if they have become obsolete, undesirable, or unachievable.
A Quick Hope-Building Exercise
So...how does this work in practice? Here's a research-backed technique for increasing your hope and the likelihood of achieving your goals. It's called WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan.
Here's how to WOOP...
1 - Wish - Think of a goal you're working toward, something challenging but feasible.
2 - Outcome - Visualise yourself achieving this goal. Describe the ideal outcome in one sentence.
3 - Obstacle - Think of an obstacle you are likely to encounter along the way to reaching your goal. This could be an internal obstacle (mindset/beliefs), or an external one (people/situations). Describe this in one sentence.
4 - Plan - Create an If-Then Plan by completing this sentence: "If [obstacle] happens, then I will [your plan to overcome that obstacle]."
>> Repeat steps 2-3 one or two more times, to help yourself feel more hopeful about achieving your goal as you prepare yourself to expect and overcome obstacles along the way.
For Further Reading & Research Mentioned
Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind by Rick Snyder
Making Hope Happen by Shane Lopez
Psychological Capital and Beyond by Luthans, Youssef-Morgan, and Avolio.
Rethinking Positive Thinking by Gabriele Oettingen
About the Author
Kristin Lowe is a former international school teacher who now works as an organisational psychologist, strengths-based leadership coach, and positive parenting educator.
Kristin’s work centers around applied positive psychology, helping school communities cultivate what is best within themselves and leverage these strengths to help students become confident, capable, and caring people.
You can read more about Kristin’s background and qualifications here.