What is the role of hope in shaping our lives?

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I recently attended an ICF (International Coaches Federation) convention where one of the more intriguing presentations was about hope.

On my return home, Charleston was being battered by a combination of high tides and storm surge from Hurricane Irma, literally flooding the homes of friends in the downtown area. Meanwhile, in the northwest part of the US, I had friends tell me they were choking on smoke from approximately 75 raging wildfires, hundreds of miles from the actual blazes. Then Mexico City was hit by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in places I spent quite a bit of time years ago, happening quite literally on the day marking the 32nd anniversary of one of the biggest and most deadly Mexican quakes in known memory.

The combination of the disasters and the presentation I heard on hope got me thinking the role hope plays in our lives.  My sister went to the Florida Keys with the Red Cross to feed hungry people immediately after it was flattened by 120 mph winds. Yet people did not want to leave their home. They hoped to rebuild. One woman even said, “The slate has been wiped clean.  But something new will sprout here.” I am sure I would feel the same if my home across the harbor from Charleston were destroyed.

Hope is not a wish

Roughly 2,000 studies show that having hope is one of the best predictors for individuals, families, organizations, and communities to thrive (The Howells Group, 2017). Psychologists have often asked, “Why is it that one child in a dysfunctional family can make a success of their life, while another remains stuck in despair?” The answer is hope. High hope people believe they have the power to make a change (Synder’sagency) and many ways to make a change for the better happen (Synder’s pathways). These people accept the way will not always be smooth and flourish even knowing that. They understand obstacles will be encountered, and failure may occur. As long as there is energy, and not despair or apathy, progress toward the goal can continue. Barriers can be studied and new approaches can be devised. Solutions can be found step by step by step. This is action.

Why is hope important to us?

Writing about addiction recovery, Martin Seligman, founder of the modern positive psychology movement, sees hope as a biological necessity for human beings. Without hope, there is no chance for recovery. It is the basis for changing destructive toxic behavior and moving toward health.

Charles Synder and colleagues came up with “hope theory” in 1991. After asking people to talk about “goal-directed thoughts…people repeatedly mentioned the pathways to reach their goals and their motivation to use those pathways.” Synder called this pairing process “pathways and agency.”

I would call it vision and action

Hope and optimism are both necessary when overcoming adversity. We all suffer in life at times. Sometimes we experience loss in small ways, losing our keys, forgetting an assignment, misplacing a book we want to read. Sometimes we experience loss in big ways, when we lose a job, a pet, or our health. In my own life, I lost a husband and was left to raise two small girls alone. I was given real hope when a widow I knew only in passing about 20 years older than me, told me of surviving in circumstances similar to mine. She assured me, “You will enjoy life again. It may not seem possible now, but I promise it will happen.”

We have to find a way to go on, and the ability to do so is frequently referred as grit, resilience, or the power of endurance.

I contend you do not have to be suffering under harsh conditions to have hope, that feeling that something good can happen, and work to make it so. You can actually be living a pretty good life, and suddenly want to do things differently, or have more impact, or leave a different legacy. Maybe you have been teaching in person but you believe you can reach more people by putting your material online. Maybe you have supported a charity with your donations, and now see a way to participate more actively out in the field to accomplish the mission of the organization. Maybe you have built a business that employs 30 people, and you want to see the company continue to support those people when you are no longer around.

Any of these examples means having a positive picture of the future

This is where hope comes in. We must believe the future will be better than the past in some way. Hope encourages us to learn what we need to know in order to reach those goals. Having goals, especially goals around mastery, leads to success in many wide-ranging areas, including academics, the arts, business, science, and sports. Personal relationships, too. You envision yourself as better, more capable, with greater skills and you work to get there. The pursuit of mastery doesn’t mean you will get to someplace where you will never have to learn another thing; it’s actually the opposite. Each time you get to a higher level of mastery, there is another higher level to pursue, if you want to keep learning and growing.

Hope is not some ephemeral namby-pamby feel-good sentiment that passes through you, then moves on leaving nothing behind. Hope is actually an important motivator. Shane J. Lopez, author of Making Hope Happen (2013) sees hope as an essential life tool you use to make the future better than the past. Lopez also contends teaching and sharing hope for a better future can be contagious, making it important for leaders and anyone who wants to influence an outcome.

Hope must be actionable

The more concrete your picture is of what you want to achieve, the more likely it is that you will achieve it. In the presentation I mentioned above, the example was building a new space for a local charity that served at-risk youth. The woman charged with the fundraising for it kept a realistic picture in her mind at all times of exactly what the facility would look like. Eventually, she found a photograph of a similar building to post in her office. Not a castle floating in the air, but a two-story framed wooden building typical in her geographic area. This is vision.

If you think of hope as a tool, you can use it to build a better future for yourself and others.


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