How to Get More

Hope may be our most important emotion. Hope enables us to pursue cherished goals and dreams. Hope casts aside doubt and fatigue in the presence of every obstacle. Hope keeps us steady and resilient in times of stress, suffering and loss.

Hopeful patients recover more quickly from surgery and serious illness. Hopeful college students get better grades. Hopeful people are less likely to feel lonely even when alone. People higher in hope are more satisfied with their jobs.

Some people are hopeful because they were raised in environments that bred empowerment, trust and security. Some were not so blessed but still found the resources to become more hopeful. Yet many others struggle to be more hopeful. No matter what your level of hope, hope is a skill that can be developed and strengthened. Here’s how…

The Four Cornerstones of Hope

Hope is more than a momentary glance toward a desired horizon. To be hopeful is a basic approach to life—it is a way of being in the world and a way of seeing the world. It is a tool for envisioning goals, a resource for coping and an expression of trust in people and outcomes.

To understand hope more clearly, I reviewed the major writings on hope across a variety of disciplines—including psychology, philosophy, theology and medicine. From the literature, I identified the four cornerstones of hope, corresponding to four basic human needs…

  • Attachment—a feeling of connection and trust. Humans are intensely social animals who thrive in a climate of shared presence and support. The hopeful person trusts that most people are well-meaning and reliable.
  • Mastery—a sense of empowerment and purpose. The human brain is blessed with large frontal lobes for imagining, planning and forecasting. The hopeful person shapes his/her future and strives to align actions with ideals.
  • Survival—the ability to manage our fears and generate multiple options instead of feeling trapped. While fully aware of his/her mortality and vulnerability, the hopeful person knows there are myriad ways of avoiding entrapment or danger.
  • Spirituality—faith in a religion or a set of life-defining values. We desire a connection to something greater than ourselves. We cannot achieve adequate levels of attachment, mastery and survival just from our secular, ­everyday lives. We gravitate toward some form of transcendence to experience the depth of connection, empowerment and assurance that define a full hope.

Building Hope

To become more hopeful, we need to strengthen the four cornerstones of hope. Here’s how…

Build your capacity for attachment. Specifically target your capacity for trust and openness. Too much or too little of either can diminish hope. An old English proverb warns that it is an equal failing to trust everybody and to trust nobody. Find the middle ground by reviewing your past experiences. Do an “engagement inventory.” Were your parents, siblings or friends too open and trusting…or closed and mistrustful? Have you been burned or betrayed or conversely lost out on opportunities because you were too wary and suspicious? Do you need to move the needle of trust and openness in one direction or the other?

If you are an introvert, push yourself to expand your social network. Make a commitment to reach out socially every day—whether through a phone call, an e-mail to a faraway friend or a meeting over coffee.

In conversations, build trust by gradually sharing a bit more information about yourself than feels comfortable. If you are worried about being too personal, observe the level of disclosure and openness in a person who you believe has strong social skills, and see if you can match that level.

If you are an extrovert, ask yourself whether you are just skimming the surface with your many relationships. Challenge yourself to spend a little less time in groups and a little more time in one-on-one conversations. Ask people to tell you what they care deeply about. Practice listening without interrupting them.

Build your capacity for mastery. Think about your strengths. This builds confidence and your sense of empowerment. Enlist the help of a friend who is good at seeing positive traits in others, and ask him to tell you what strengths he sees in you.

You also need role models who embody the strengths and ideals that you value. Identify one or two inspiring role models—people in your neighborhood or workplace, even public or historical figures. Ask yourself, How does this person’s example inspire me to do something outside my usual limits?

Build your capacity for survival. Your goals should be improved self-regulation (emotional steadiness) and stronger problem-solving skills.

Part of the trick in being hopeful is balancing action with patience and allowing for your imagination and unconscious to incubate. When faced with a dilemma, it often is possible to form a stopgap, temporary solution and build some time, maybe only minutes but sometimes hours, days or months, to allow the internal incubation and external opportunities to come together with new possibilities.

In the time between waiting and acting, practice some strategies to calm yourself. Examples…

Rhythmic breathing. Inhale gently for four counts through your nose and exhale slowly for six counts through your mouth (pursed lips are helpful). Repeat for one to two minutes.

Progressive relaxation. Tense and then release your muscles, beginning at the top of your head and working down to your feet. Focus on the difference between the feelings of tension and ­relaxation.

Train yourself to see multiple options when you feel trapped. Ask yourself…

  • What are some times in the past when I successfully handled a situation like this, and what did I do? 
  • What have other people done in the past when they were in a similar ­situation? 
  • Are there strategies I can borrow from a totally different situation that might carry over to this problem? 

Finally, reflect on whether your tendency under stress is to look exclusively at the big picture or the details—the forest or the trees. Both views are useful, but reverting exclusively to either view as your default closes off your options. Practice shifting back and forth between a broader and narrower view of your situation.

Build your capacity for spirituality. Close your eyes, and spend a few minutes thinking about what is sacred to you. This is a highly personal issue, and your answer may be a deity or religion…an unnamed higher power…nature…a feeling of connection with humankind…or something else.

Now ask yourself what will help you to deepen your connection with what is sacred to you. Do you want a leadership position within your church, temple or garden club? Would you be happy volunteering or assisting in a more background role for a nonprofit that is near and dear to your heart? Or perhaps regularly engaging in certain activites or rituals is all you need to deepen your connection. Examples: Attending worship services…walking in the woods…praying or meditating daily. The choice is yours.

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