Human weaknesses such as hopelessness and aggression have often been the focus of psychologists. This attention to weakness has resulted in information on treatments of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. However, with the recent emergence of the positive psychology perspective, more focus is being given to studying human strengths. The aim of positive psychology is to help health care, education, and business professionals apply a science that focuses on the understanding of what makes life worth living. Positive psychology is an umbrella term for the study of positive character traits, positive emotions, and enabling institutions. One example of such human strength that has been studied widely is the construct of hope.
From the late 1950s and into the 1960s, several theorists focused on the concept of hope and centered the explanation of hope around a person’s positive expectations for goal attainment. Simply stated, hope was viewed as the perception that one’s goals can be attained. Over time and across research examining the construct, the conceptualization of hope evolved into a much more complex and diverse theory. According to Rick Snyder and his colleagues, hope is a cognitive set that is composed of agency (goal-directed determination) and pathways (planning ways to meet stated goals). These components add up to the capacity for subjective evaluation of goal-related capabilities, or hope.
The agency component of Snyder’s hope theory involves the cognitive energy or willpower that allows an individual to get moving toward his or her goal. The agency component also can be defined as an individual’s perceived ability to begin movement toward a goal, and to maintain that movement along the envisioned pathway until the desired goal is reached. Self-affirming statements, such as “I know I can do this” and “I will get this done,” are frequently associated with the agency component. Individuals who usually engage in this type of self-affirming self-talk are those with high levels of hope, whereas individuals who do not typically engage in this type of self-talk are those with low levels of hope.
The pathways component of Snyder’s hope theory involves an individual’s perceived ability to produce effective routes to reach his or her goals. In order to attain imagined goals, people must be able to perceive that they have the ability to develop possible routes to reach their goals. Individuals with high levels of hope tend to have the ability to create many possible routes to reach their goals, whereas individuals with lower levels of hope may have difficulty creating plans to reach their desired goals. Goals can be long term and/or short term, and they should be attainable by the individual. Effective goal-directed thinking requires both agency thoughts, or goal-directed energy, and pathways thoughts, or the perceived capacity to create workable routes toward goals. The Hope Scale developed by Snyder measures both the agency and pathways components of hope.
Hope and Aspects of Well-Being
Psychological well-being involves an active engagement in the world, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and a connection to people or objects beyond oneself. Hope theory provides researchers and practitioners with a framework for understanding and enhancing well-being and adaptive ways of functioning. The remainder of this entry discusses research that links hope to specific aspects of well-being, including academic success, physical health, psychological adjustment, and meaning in life.
Hope and Academic Success
An important aspect of succeeding in today’s society is for one to learn and perform well in educational settings. To be academically successful, students need the ability to enhance their perceived capabilities of finding multiple pathways to meet their educational goals and the motivations to pursue these goals by applying hopeful thinking. Students also need to overcome self-deprecatory thoughts and negative emotions, and to be able to stay on task through hopeful thinking.
Research shows that hope and academic achievement have a strong relationship. Hope relates to higher achievement test scores in grade school children and higher semester grade-point averages in college students. Hope Scale scores taken at the beginning of college students’ first semester predicted higher cumulative grade-point averages, higher graduation rates, and lower dropout rates. Aspects of goals, including goal commitment, goal attainability, and goal progress, play an important role in a student’s academic success. The working combination of goal commitment and goal attainability accounted for significant portions of variance in self-assessment of progress toward goal achievement. Perceived progress in goal achievement acts as a cause of change in well-being. If one imagines the negative effects (i.e., lost opportunities, sense of failure, unfulfilled talents) that may occur over a lifetime for students who do not succeed in educational settings, then the research showing that hope may reduce or prevent these negative effects is crucial.
Hope and Physical Health
Hope has been positively linked to the core foci of health psychology, including promoting and maintaining good health, and preventing, detecting, and treating illness. The powers of hope have been described in terms of primary and secondary prevention. Primary prevention involves thoughts and actions that are intended to reduce or eliminate the chances that subsequent health problems, either physical or psychological, will occur in the future. Secondary prevention involves thoughts and actions that are directed at eliminating, reducing, or containing a problem once it has occurred.
Research concerning hope and the primary prevention of physical illness has revealed that people with higher levels of hope use information about physical illness to their advantage to do more of what helps and less of what is harmful. Knowledge is used as a pathway for prevention. Snyder and colleagues discussed that women with higher levels of hope performed better on a cancer facts test than women with lower levels of hope, even after controlling for their past academic performances and their contacts with others who have had cancer. Furthermore, women with higher levels of hope reported higher intentions to engage in cancer prevention activities than women with lower levels of hope, and people with high hope reported engaging in more preventive behaviors, such as physical exercise, as compared to people with low hope.
Hope also plays a very important role even after physical illness develops. Hope should facilitate one’s coping with the pain, disability, and other stressors of physical illness, and research shows that hope has been related to better adjustment in conditions involving handicaps, severe injury, and chronic illness. More specific studies have shown that higher levels of hope have related benefits in dealing with burn injuries, spinal cord injuries, severe arthritis, fibromyalgia, and blindness.
People with lower levels of hope often experience higher anxiety when it comes to physical illness, and this may result in maladaptive avoidance coping. It also has been shown that people who are physically ill and who have low hope can be overtaken by self-focus and self-pity which, in turn, increases anxiety and compromises the healing process. However, once ill, people with high hope appear to remain appropriately energized and focused on what they need to do to recuperate. It is believed that people who are experiencing profound or chronic pain and who have higher levels of hope should be able to lessen their pain by enlisting more strategies, or pathways, and by having a higher likelihood of using those strategies, or agency, than those with lower levels of hope. Research clearly shows that hope theory can be usefully applied when it comes to prevention, detection, and effective coping with physical illness.
Hope and Psychological Adjustment
Psychological adjustment is another aspect of well-being that is influenced by hope in many ways. Specifically, hope is related positively with positive affect and negatively with negative affect. It also has been shown that manipulations to increase hope levels resulted in increases in positive affect and decreases in negative affect, and people who have higher levels of hope report having more positive and fewer negative thoughts every day. One specific study showed that college students with high hope as compared to students with low hope reported feeling more inspired, energized, confident, and challenged by their goals, as well as having elevated feelings of self-worth and low levels of depression.
As stated previously, hope is critical for physical health. Hope also is critical for psychological health. Hopeful thought involves assets, such as the ability to establish clear goals, imagine workable pathways to those goals, and motivate oneself to work toward those goals, and people with higher hope yield more successful goal pursuits in many different areas. A stressor is something that interferes with one’s normal ongoing goal of being happy. When one is confronted with a stressor, one must find alternative paths to obtain the “normalcy” goal. People with higher hope are able to produce more strategies for dealing with the stressor and express a greater likelihood of using those strategies, as well as find benefits in ongoing dealings with stressors. Dealing with stressors in one’s life, either effectively or ineffectively, is something that influences one’s feelings, emotions, and affect.
It is argued that positive emotions should flow from perceptions of successful goal pursuits and negative emotions are the product of unsuccessful goal pursuits. Research has shown that when people are confronted with insurmountable goal blockages, they experience negative emotions, and when people are able to follow successful, unimpeded goal pursuit after overcoming impediments, they experience positive emotions. It also has been reported that people who encounter severe difficulties in pursuit of important goals report lessened well-being, and the perceived lack of progress toward major goals is the cause of reductions in well-being. The opposite is true, as well. It has been reported that successful pursuit of goals is associated with elevated self-esteem and well-being.
Snyder and colleagues discussed that psychological health is related to people’s routine anticipation of their future well-being. People with higher levels of hope should expect more positive levels of psychological health as compared to people with lower levels of hope. These kinds of positive expectations will produce higher confidence, and those with high hope will perceive that their hopeful thinking will protect them against future stressors.
Psychological health also involves thoughts and actions that eliminate, reduce, or contain a problem that has already presented itself. When people with high hope encounter a goal blockage, they are flexible enough to be able to find alternative goals and alternative ways to meet these goals, whereas people with low hope tend to ruminate unproductively about being stuck. People with high levels of hope tend to have friends with whom they share a strong sense of mutuality. When stressful situations arise, those with high hope can call on these friends for support. However, people with low levels of hope tend to be lonelier, and lack friends with whom they can talk and call upon in stressful times. All of this plays into people’s overall psychological adjustment.
Hope and Meaning In Life
Life meaning has been one of the most elusive concepts in many fields of research and study. There are many theories discussing what life meaning truly is, but generally, conceptualizations of meaning share at least two notions. First, life meaning is a global way of assessing or understanding one’s life, and second, believing that life is meaningful is associated with lower levels of negative emotions (i.e., depression and anxiety) and lower risk of mental illness.
Snyder and colleagues posited that hope should relate strongly with life meaning, as measured by a number of instruments assessing meaning or purpose in life, because it is through individuals’ self-reflection about the goals they have selected and the progress they perceive in their journey toward these goals that individuals construct meaning in their lives. Hope Scale scores were found to have significant positive correlations with the life meaning measures, suggesting that hope theory offers a new way to look at the nature of meaning.
Life meaning is viewed as a wider concept than hope because no life meaning theory can be reduced simply to goal pursuit. However, hope can be conceptualized as a component of life meaning, central to its ability to predict variables of well-being. Studies have demonstrated that relations between hope and depression are moderated by life meaning. Researchers believe that the perceived ability to achieve goals that is associated with having higher hope works as a buffer against depression and anxiety, and this, in turn, is related to higher well-being and higher life meaning.
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