According to Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology,” hope is expecting that future bad events will be temporary, specific, and manageable. Other researchers, like Charles (Rick) Snyder and Jennifer Cheavens, have suggested that hope involves having a pathway to achieve goals and the agency, or motivation, to reach these goals. Still other researchers, like Barbara Fredrickson, understand hope as an exception, because unlike other positive emotions, it comes into play only when our circumstances are difficult or at least uncertain. And medical researchers such as Kaye Herth have found that hope happens when there is sufficient support.

No unifying theory on hope has emerged. The research findings are like the parable of the three blind men holding a different part of an elephant, and then describing what the elephant looks like: each description is accurate, yet not complete. So I decided to put together the puzzle pieces from different theories and findings concerning hope. The result is a set of tools that can make hope happen.

High-hope people have a high degree of agency, the energy and motivation to bring about a change. They also have a pathway, a way to get there, and are particularly good at generating new pathways when they are met with obstacles. They are both resilient and resourceful.


Hopefulness Does Not Discount the Negative 

There are common misconceptions about hope that I want to address. Here is the first.

Myth #1: Hope is purely positive.

Fact: Hope is the only positive emotion that needs negativity or uncertainty.

Hope requires negativity or uncertainty to flourish. It is the obstacles, the setbacks, the disappointments that hold the emotional nutrients for growth. The history of psychology has taught us much about discouraging emotions. What makes positive psychology the most rapidly developing specialty in the field is the effect positive emotions can have on the negative. By applying specific tools to activate and enhance our positive emotions, we can shake loose the grip that negative emotions can have in our lives.

Hopefulness is unique because it lives in the balance between positive and negative. As you will learn, it results from a series of decisions about how we interpret setbacks and act upon the world. Hope is a seed planted in the muck of our life that will do everything it can to find the light.


Small Efforts Can Activate Hope 

Hope is not a feeling of longing for something yet being unable to make it happen. It involves the agency to change things.

Myth # 2: You either have hope or you don’t.

Fact: Hope can be activated and cultivated.

Evidence shows that finding small ways to feel better activates hopeful feelings—which means that hope can be regulated, improved, and cultivated. It also seems that having fewer negative feelings leads to higher levels of hope.

This is a game-changer—a radically different understanding of how to introduce hope in our lives. Instead of waiting for hope to arrive and motivate us, we can do something immediately to activate it and bring it closer to our awareness. We have the power to activate hope, by using specific approaches to help us make better choices.


Become Aware of Seeking the Negative 

In many ways, the condition of being human sets us up for negative thinking. Think about when you have something stuck in your teeth. A piece of kale, perhaps. Where does your tongue go? It goes directly to the problem and works to solve it. If you have bitten your lip, your tongue does the same thing—it is immediately dispatched to soothe the wounded area. What your tongue never does is hang out by your back molars, feeling how nice they are. The tongue’s default mechanism is to sweep the mouth, constantly looking for problems. If something doesn’t taste good, feel right, or is injured— the tongue goes on full alert, and works to resolve it. But when your tongue detects everything is okay, it doesn’t do a thing.

Our brains work the same way. A brain is, first and foremost, a tool for survival. Its first job—like the tongue’s—is to protect us from what’s wrong, bad, or dangerous. The brain has evolved over centuries, developing what evolutionary scientists call a “negativity bias”: we are hardwired to move away from what can hurt us.

The brain is constantly assessing what is and isn’t a threat. If something is a danger, the brain figures out what needs to be done. If you’ve ever walked down a city street with hundreds of people around, you know what happens when one person starts yelling too loud or starts a fight with someone. You go on high alert and begin assessing the situation. Should I run away? Run toward? Stand still? Danger dominates our concentration and concern. Our brain is in search of what’s wrong, making these assessments between twenty and fifty thousand times a day.

Negative thoughts are often the essential ingredients for our success as they can motivate us to change. Your negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences allow you to believe that something might help. Your pain motivates the need for change and generates hope—instead of reminding you of your weakness, it summons your strength. You can learn to summon this strength anytime you need it.

This post is excerpted from Dan’s book Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression.

Dan Tomasulo will speak on the topic “The Healing Power of Hope: Bridging Practice and Science,” at a WBI/JCC Manhattan webinar on Tuesday, March 30, at 12:00 pm ET. Find out more and register.

Dan Tomasulo

Dan Tomasulo

Dan Tomasulo is the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds a PhD in psychology, an MFA in writing, and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a Review Editor for Frontiers in Psychology’s special section Positive Psychology. Dr. Tomasulo was honored by Sharecare as one of the top 10 online influencers on the issue of depression. His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit (2018), tells of the first experimental group home releasing inmates from America’s most notorious asylum, Willowbrook. His most recent book, Learned Hopefulness, was described by Martin Seligman as “the best go-to book on how to use hope to relieve your depression.” 

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