What is hope and how do we find it?

Two little boys in tow, we made our way through three airports and landed in Casablanca.

We were excited, ready to make a difference in people's lives, and eager to help start a new school. We believed in education (still do) and were excited about the potential. We were joining a visionary leader who had already accomplished great things and had a plan. Our hope was high.

But, I vividly remember days (yes, multiple) not wanting to get out of bed. I could see no way to ever learn the language or to ever make a difference in others’ lives. I could no longer look past the trash on my street—everything became gloomy. I was ready to go home.  I had little hope.

Hope. We all know the term and can tell you if we have it or if we don’t. But, what is it?!  Is it something that just happens to us, or is it something we have some control over?

To live a life devoid of hope is simply not to live . . . it is to cease to function as a human being.
— Victoria McGeer, Princeton University

What is Hope?

Photo by  Kyle Johnson  on  Unsplash

Hope is a motivational state of expectation for a possible and better future, based on the ability to see potential paths to the desired goal, and a sense of personal ability to take action forward.

Hope can feel like a mystery, but to those who have researched it, it’s “a more prosaic thing as well: a skill, a tool, a simple choice that is a lot less accidental, and a lot less serendipitous than most of us believe it to be.” In other words, hope has predictable, and rather routine, components and isn’t as much of an accident or fluke as we might think.

A Future Picture:  This is what we are desiring—the picture of what we hope to accomplish. It’s not only a big, long-term picture, like a calling to a particular field. It’s also a smaller or short-term vision, like laughing with our local friends, because we really understand the Ramadan sitcom we are watching. This picture is a vision of a better or desired future.

“Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” —Paul, a 1st-century author  

Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?
— Paul, a 1st-century author

Evidence of Ability:  Hope can begin with, but not continue long without, some indications that the desired outcome is possible for me. If we can picture it, there is already some evidence we can achieve it.  

Evidence of ability includes personal history, like the fact that I did learn a new word in Arabic yesterday. I was able to pay my electric bill, despite my language abilities.

It also includes “borrowed hope.” When my friend tells a story of overcoming obstacles or moving toward his own vision, that also functions as evidence toward my ability. Even stories we read of our ancient fathers’ journeys toward their calling serves as evidence to us.

Options:  How many possibilities or pathways lead to the desired result? The more possibilities we see for how to arrive at this desired outcome, the more likely hope will spring up within us.

For example, knowing I can learn the language through classes, through hanging out with friends, or by watching television breeds more hope than thinking I have to use this one (boring) path to language learning.

Action:  Hope will disappear if we do not have the ability or the will to move forward toward the goal. Actually, hope expert, Shane Lopez, says that what distinguishes “hoping” from “wishing” is that hope makes us antsy to do something—to move forward. We are compelled to action. If we find no way to take action, our hope will fade.

I might wish I could win the iPhone—the grand prize in the local store’s tombola, but hope for that includes submitting my name. (By the way, we actually won it!)

Connection:  This ties closely to the area of “evidence of ability,” but is so important that it merits its own section. Personal connection with others increases our sense of hope. Ward and Wampler who studied the role of hope in couples’ therapy share that "Connection with other human beings, with a higher power, or some other intimate connection provides a sense of hope that the desired outcome is possible."

Hope is vital to life. Connection is vital to hope.

The strength, ability, and capacity of those to whom we are connected is huge when it comes to hope. This is why those who are in community and those who feel connected to God tend to soar in hope compared to those without.

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Often when we've lost hope, it's because we've lost sight of one or more of these areas. We are fogged-in and can't see how to move beyond the barrier right in front of us. We don't have the skills needed, and we can't see a way to get them. Maybe we feel alone and know we can't do it by ourselves.

A prolonged loss of hope or depression is serious, possibly even life-threatening.

How to increase your hope

Take a moment and identify which component(s) you are struggling with: Picture, Evidence, Options, Action, and/or Connection. Now, brainstorm possibilities in the identified area. Don't limit your thinking by analyzing—just brainstorm.

Picture: What is my desired future? Maybe I don’t have a picture at all, or it’s too big to be believable. Try using photos, or just talking about what you’d like life to be like tomorrow, next month, or 5 years from now—whichever seems appropriate to the situation. Or, ask a friend, “What do you think I could accomplish . . .?”

Evidence: How is it even possible for me to get there? Think of times you’ve faced obstacles in the past, and write down all the ways you overcame those obstacles. Or, write down all the abilities found in your community of friends, and then consider how access to those might change your perspective of this situation or open up new options.

Options: What are some paths I can take to get there? Stretch yourself to consider new options. Get a friend to help you consider pathways you might readily dismiss. Think of “crazy” ideas. These “no way that would work!” options can spark new areas of the brain and open up new ideas that just might work!

Action: What's one thing I can do today? Take one of the big steps you have in mind and break it down into its smaller components. Then, take just one small step forward. Once you do, take note that you accomplished it. Celebrate that little step. Just stopping to enjoy smiling over small wins will help.

Connection: Who can I tell? When you start feeling stuck, share your thoughts with a friend and tell them you'd like help gaining some new perspective or fresh evidence that your vision could be possible. If you still feel stuck, look beyond your regular lineup of contacts. Consider talking with a counselor, coach, pastor, mentor, or other specialist (financial planner, marketing specialist, spiritual director, physician, etc).

The ingredients of hope are: a picture of a desired future, the presence of pathways that could lead to that place, and evidence of my/our ability to get there. It is shown through action and enhanced through connection. Hope is something we can cultivate in ourselves and in others. Start a more hopeful future by taking one step forward today.