Hope Definition

A typical dictionary definition of hope suggests that it reflects a goal-related expectation of success. In psychology, a definition that has gained considerable attention basically expands on this dictionary one. More specifically, hope is said to involve goal-directed thinking in which people perceive that they have the capacities to produce the routes to desired goals (called pathways thinking), along with the necessary motivations to use those routes (called agency thinking).

History of Hope

HopeThe most famous story about hope is the tale of Pandora. Zeus was angry with mortals for having stolen fire from the gods, and, accordingly, he developed a plan to extract revenge against humans. To do this, Zeus created a maiden, Pandora, whom he sent to earth with a dowry jar. Pandora was instructed that, no matter what, she was not to open this jar. Zeus evidently was using reverse psychology here, for he knew that Pandora could not resist taking a peak at what was inside. Indeed, upon coming to earth, Pandora opened the lid. Out poured a plague of negative forces, including colic, rheumatism, and gout for the body, along with envy, spite, and revenge for the mind. Pandora was horrified at what she had done, and she quickly tried to replace the lid. At this point, however, she supposedly noticed that hope was stuck under the lid.

Although mythology is vague on whether hope actually escaped, the usual conclusion is that it did. Moreover, hope has been viewed as being just as evil as the forces that did escape. For example, Sophocles believed that hope only prolonged human suffering. Plato called hope a foolish counselor. Francis Bacon said that hope was a good breakfast but a bad supper. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin cautioned people with the observation, “He who lives on hope will die fasting.” Therefore, much of history has been quite negative about hope. On this latter point, therefore, it should be noted that the Judeo-Christian viewpoint has been in the minority when making hope one of its virtues (along with faith and charity).

It was not until the 1950s that psychologists and mental health professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, nurses) began using scientific approaches for exploring hope. These early scholars generally agreed with the dictionary definition of hope as involving positive expectancies for reaching desired goals. Moving into the 1970s and 1980s, there was yet more interest in hope by psychologists. Of the various theoretical approaches, a model known as hope theory has gained considerable attention. According to hope theory, hope reflects goal-directed thinking in which people believe in their capacities to produce the routes to desired goals (pathways thinking), along with the mental energies or motivations to use those routes (agency thinking). Furthermore, the consensus was that such hope thinking was learned through childhood experiences rather than being a product of genetic inheritance. Finally, as psychology began to pay more attention to human strengths in the 1990s and beyond, hope has been one of the key concepts.

Evidence for Hope

There have been two general approaches taken in hope research. A first approach has involved the development of self-report scales and the subsequent study of how the scores on such hope measures were related to other variables. A second approach has entailed attempts to teach people how to become more hopeful, along with any benefits that may accompany such increases in hopeful thinking. These lines of research will be explained briefly in this section.

The scale that has been used frequently in research is called the Hope Scale. It is an eight-item self-report measure on which adults rate each item according to how true it is of them (going from “definitely false” to “definitely true”). Using the hope theory model to guide its content, this scale has four pathways items (e.g., “I can think of many ways to get out of a jam”) and four agency items (e.g., “I energetically pursue my goals”). The scores on these eight items are summed, with higher scores reflecting higher hope. There are two versions of these trait-like hope scales that tap thinking across circumstances or situations, with one being for adults and the other for children. Moreover, there is a situation-specific hope scale that taps adult hope in particular circumstances (e.g., work, relationships, school), and another state hope scale version that measures hope at any given moment in time (i.e., “here and now”).

Results from studies that used these various hope scales have shown consistently that higher scores are related to (a) better performances in academics (from grade school to graduate school) and sports; (b) more positive outcomes on psychological indices involving happiness, satisfaction, self-esteem, optimism, and meaning in life; and (c) superior coping with stressors stemming from physical injuries, diseases, pain, and a variety of life impediments. In these previous studies, it should be noted that the magnitudes of the hope correlations with the various other markers did not diminish when measures of natural ability were taken into account through statistical procedures. In other words, hope still predicted school achievements when intelligence was added to the equation. Likewise, hope still predicted athletic performances when natural athletic talent was added to the equation.

Hope has long been thought to be the underlying common process in all successful psychotherapy approaches. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the second line of research pertains to teaching people how to increase their levels of hopeful thinking. In this regard, there have been successful attempts to enhance hope in the context of one-on-one settings, couples, and groups of people. In regard to groups, researchers have implemented an intervention for depressed older adults. In 10 group sessions, these elderly adults underwent activities based on hope theory (to lessen their depression and raise their physical activities), and the results showed significant improvements for the people in this group when compared to people who underwent a commonly used intervention. In another hope intervention, the outpatients who were visiting a community mental health center were taught the basic principles of hope theory before they entered treatment. Results showed that these outpatients improved in their later treatments, and they did so more than clients who had not been given these pretreatment preparations. In yet another study, a videotaped treatment involving hopeful narratives was given to women who had survived childhood incest. After viewing this tape, these women had higher levels of hope than did the women who viewed a control tape (on the topic of nature). In addition, there have been successful hope educational programs for teaching goal-directed thinking to students of varying ages (grade school to college).

Both the correlation-based research using self-report measures of hope and the causation-based interventions aimed at raising the hope levels have shown that higher hope is beneficial. Likewise, the power of hope in producing robust correlations to various other variables cannot be explained by natural talents (e.g., intelligence or athletic ability). Thus, there appears to be something particular to hopeful, goal-directed thinking that makes it effective in yielding its benefits.

Hope Importance and Implications

In contrast to the negative historical views that hope is a counterproductive force in the lives of human beings, the emerging research in positive psychology shows that hope yields benefits in a variety of life arenas. Not only is hopeful thinking adaptive during normal times, but it also appears to be crucial when people encounter impediments or blockages to their desired goals. Perhaps the best news in regard to hope is that is does not appear to reflect genetic endowment; it is a pattern of thinking that is learned during childhood. Furthermore, research suggests that should adults be low in hope, there are ways to teach them to raise their hopes. Whether it is through educational or psychotherapeutic approaches, therefore, the principles of hopeful thinking can be conveyed so that people can reap its benefits.


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