References to a concept of hope can be found throughout historical writings and across many different disciplines. Despite the frequency of discussions about hope, there is not one unified description or definition for the concept. Christian scholars frequently characterize hope as a virtue from God in which individuals are confident in receiving an eternal reward. Philosophers provide a range of viewpoints, from hope as a misleading influence, like a mirage that motivates but is unattainable, to hope as an understanding of realistic desires. Hope has most recently been a focus of study for social scientists, who, through research, have defined hope as the mental motivation and plans that a person has for his or her goals. This latter understanding of hope will be explored in more detail.
Components Of Hope
Hope can be broken down into three basic components: goals, pathway thinking, and agency.
Any desired outcome, object, or experience that individuals can imagine is considered a goal. A goal can be something tangible, such as wanting to buy a new car, or intangible, such as the desire to win a soccer game. Goals also range from the concrete, as in wanting the car, to the vague, as in the aspiration for success. Likewise, there is variation in the magnitude of goals. At times, they reflect more immediate desires (I will read this article today), and at others, distant wishes (I will complete a doctoral degree in literature).
People set goals constantly, often without realizing it. By reading these words right now you are engaging in behavior that reflects a goal (such as to read this sentence or to gather information about the concept of hope). By this definition, humans engage in goal setting almost constantly. But hope is not concerned with those goals that are assured successes or failures. For literate, educated adults, the goal of reading this sentence is virtually certain to be reached. Hope is an active process. Therefore, the reading goal would not be considered in relation to a person’s level of hope because it is not open to change.
All goals are not created equal. One way that individuals can enhance their level of hope is by making their goals more specific. An undefined goal like wanting to be happy may be harder to picture than defined goals such as wanting to make a new friend or finding an enjoyable hobby. Specific goals also facilitate agency and pathway thinking.
For many goals, there are multiple viable routes to reaching them. Pathway thinking is used to identify possible ways to achieve a goal. Pathway thinking can be aided by focusing on specific important goals. Starting with a clear goal will increase one’s ability to identify targeted pathways. Similarly, pathway thinking is more active when the goal is important to the individual.
Agency is the motivation that moves people toward their goals. It is made up of thoughts that relate to individuals’ beliefs that they can start working on a goal and continue progressing until the goal is reached. Agency thoughts can include a person’s thoughts about his or her competence (I can do it), abilities (I know how to do this), and readiness for action (I’m ready to try). These can be applied to a variety of goals, but certain characteristics of goals make it easier to activate agency. When one imagines an important goal, motivation is more available. For example, an athlete is much more likely to play hard to win a state championship basketball game than a friendly family game of basketball. Furthermore, those goals that are specifically defined are more likely to spark mental energy.
High Hope Example
A high level of hope reflects strong agency and pathway thinking. It is possible for someone to be high in agency but low in pathways (and vice versa), but neither of these alone is sufficient to create high levels of hope. Consider the example of Andrea, a college student who has the goal of earning an “A” in biology class. When Andrea thinks about how to achieve this goal, she is able to generate numerous pathways, including turning all assignments in on time, studying an extra 20 minutes per day, getting a tutor, and organizing a study group before each test. Because she has multiple routes to her goal, Andrea’s progress towards an “A” will not be stopped if one of her routes becomes blocked.
Andrea also exhibits high agency. Although the goal may be challenging, she focuses on her desire for a good grade, her willingness to work hard, and her past success as a student. These agency thoughts push Andrea to initiate her pathway behaviors and will motivate her to keep trying when she does encounter obstacles.
Benefits Of Hope
The positive effects of high hope have been demonstrated in many areas of performance. In the area of academics, level of hope at the beginning of the college semester has consistently predicted students’ final grades, even when the influence of high school academic performance is removed. What makes this even more striking is that hope is not correlated with IQ; therefore, the superior performance of high-hope individuals cannot be explained by simple achievement or intelligence. Research with athletes has also found that hope predicts athletic performance, even after controlling for natural physical ability.
Because of their level of agency and ability to identify pathways, high-hope people are more likely to reach their goals. This alone is important knowledge. But people with high hope also tend to do other specific things that help them to cope with life’s problems. When they encounter stressful events, people with higher hope do not perceive the events as negatively as do people with lower hope. Presented with a challenge, high-hope individuals concentrate on how to deal with the situation, whereas low-hope individuals begin to worry and focus on themselves. Social support is also stronger among higher-hope people.
Studies of hope and health, both mental and physical, find that higher-hope people have better outcomes. Although hope does not immunize people against illness, it is correlated with lower rates of anxiety and depression, quicker recovery from surgery, and better adjustment to injury and chronic disease.
Without intervention, a person’s level of hope tends to remain stable. But it is possible to strengthen one’s goal setting, agency, and way-power thinking. By practicing goal setting with a focus on creating positive and specific goals that represent a moderate challenge, people can create a solid basis for hopeful thinking. For specific activities to measure and improve hope, see the References: section.
Hope is a way of thinking about goals. A person’s level of hope reflects the amount of agency and pathways he or she has. Agency refers to the motivation to reach a goal, whereas pathways are workable routes to reach the goal. By increasing one’s level of hope, one may experience improved performance in academics, at work, or in athletic pursuits. Higher levels of hope have also been correlated with more positive health outcomes.
- Godfrey, J. J. (1987). A philosophy of human hope. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhof
- McDermott, , & Snyder, C. R. (1999). Making hope happen. Oakland/San Francisco: New Harbinger Press.
- Seligman, E. P. (2004). Teaching hope. Retrieved from http://www.psych.upenn.edu/seligman/teachinghope.htm
- Snyder, R. (1994). The psychology of hope. New York: The Free Press.
- Snyder, R. (2004). Home page. Retrieved from http://www.psych.ku.edu/faculty/rsnyder/
- Snyder, C. , Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2002). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 257–276). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Snyder, C. , Shorey, H. S., Cheavens, J., Pulvers, K. M., Adams, V. H., & Wiklund, C. (2002). Hope and academic success in college. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 820–826.