Aug. 23, 2023 -- The woman arrived for her first therapy session distressed and depressed. Her husband of 20 years had just announced that he was in love with someone else. At 47, she was so upset she had a heart attack and then needed to go on disability from work.
“She had her sense of self shaken at the core,” said Dan Tomasulo, PhD, a counseling psychologist and academic director of the Spirituality Mind Body Institute at Teachers College of Columbia University, who treated her. “Within about 10 days, her whole life crumbled.”
Working with her regularly, Tomasulo helped her not just recover from depression and her sense that she had no future, but to thrive.
The key? Teaching her how to be hopeful.
Hopefulness can be learned, Tomasulo and many other mental health experts contend. Once we learn how to be more hopeful, that habit can help us overcome depression, suicidal thoughts, inertia, bad health habits, and other obstacles and ultimately move forward.
Recent surveys suggest that our hopefulness is sorely lagging, and in some populations more than others. In February, the CDC reported that 57% of U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, double that of boys and the highest level reported since 2011. Overall, 32.3% of U.S. adults reported anxiety or depressive symptoms in 2023, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Among adults 18 to 24, nearly half did. Experts disagree about how much hopelessness drives thoughts of suicide, but at least in depressed people, it’s believed to be linked.
Learning hopefulness is not only a good skill to have, but it could be lifesaving. Therapists like Tomasulo, who advocate an approach known as positive psychology, as well as educators who have launched hopefulness programs for youths and workers, say anyone can develop or reclaim their sense of hope — if they are willing to work at it.
What Is Hope and Hopefulness?
Crucial to boosting hopefulness is understanding what it is. Hope is a word we often use. “I hope I win the lottery.” Or “I hope I get a better job soon.”
That hope is simply a wish, experts said. That’s “squishy” hope, said Rick Miller, founder of a program at Arizona State University called Kids at Hope, which teaches the value and strategy of hope. “We are talking about cognitive hope,” Miller said.
That hope, according to the Kansas psychologist who developed the concept 30 years ago, requires having a goal, the ability to stay motivated to meet the goal, and having pathways to get there, even if obstacles occur. This is “learned hopefulness,” Miller and others say.
The Path From Hopelessness to Hopefulness
“Hope is unique among all the positive emotions,” Tomasulo said, “because it requires negativity to be activated. With all the other positive emotions, you don’t need that. Hope is unique because it requires something [going] wrong."
As he helps people discover the route to hopefulness, Tomasulo talks about pebbles and feathers — pebbles are the negative thoughts, feathers the positive. To cultivate hopefulness, the goal, of course, is to increase the feathers in relation to the pebbles. As you do that, the ratio of positive to negative emotions change, and the positive ones begin to carry more weight.
In one of the first meetings, Tomasulo asked the woman with the heart attack and cheating husband to focus on gratitude -- the things she had in her life she was grateful for. Friends had dropped food to her after her hospital stay, she recalled, and then other friends took her out. She had a horse she loved, and while she couldn’t ride him yet, she could go to the barn and hang out with him and with her nieces, who also loved the horse.
Instead of being stuck in her pain, the woman’s perception was changing as she realized more than one thing was happening in her life, not just depression and adultery. Receiving all that kindness allowed her to be kind. When she felt better but wasn’t yet back to work, she started volunteering at a food pantry, which boosted her sense of self-worth.
Then, very naturally, she started leaning into the future. The feathers were adding up.
“Hope is the belief you can have a positive influence on the future and a desire to make that happen,” Tomasulo said.
Within 6 months, she was back to competitive horse riding, had a much better job, and got through the divorce.
“It was not that she forgot about the pain or negativity, but realized she had a choice about what she could focus on,” said Tomasulo, who wrote Learned Hopefulness and The Positivity Effect. After much effort, the woman had chosen hopefulness.
What the Research Says
“Hope is a lot of work,” said Crystal Bryce, PhD, associate dean for student affairs and associate professor of medical education at the University of Texas at Tyler, who researches hope in youths and adults. (Researchers measure hope by adding up scores on adult and child hope scales.)
Among her findings:
- Hope levels in children change over time. “We saw a decrease when kids went from seventh to eighth grade, and an increase in hope scores when they went from eighth to ninth.” In her study of more than 1,000 youths in grades six to 10, she found that school performance stress may contribute to this decrease, and that fostering increases in hope skills (such as setting goals) before the high school transition might buffer stress and boost achievement. “If you have higher hope, you tend to have lower stress.”
- In another study of 726 students in grades six to 12, those who had higher levels of hope before the pandemic felt more school connectedness during the pandemic, even when they were learning remotely. “Even during what one would call a hopeless time, they were able to find ways to feel connected,” Bryce said. Feeling connected, Bryce said, decreases the risk of depression.
- In a small study of 41 teachers, Bryce found those who reported being emotionally exhausted before the pandemic had lower levels of hope during it. Those who got support from colleagues had higher levels of hope.
Teaching Hope to Youth, Workers
Others have launched programs to teach hopefulness to children and to adults in the workplace.
One is Hopeful Minds, a project developed by iFred (the International Foundation for Research and Education on Hope). The aim is to give students, teachers, and parents the tools needed to develop a hopeful mindset. Its 16 lessons, 45 minutes each, have been downloaded more than 5,000 times in 47 countries, at no cost, according to Kathryn Goetzke, the founder of iFred.
Goetzke also founded the Shine Hope Company, which reaches out to workplaces with courses and campaigns on how to foster more hope to improve workers’ well-being.
Goetzke knows well the journey from hopelessness to hopefulness. Her father died by suicide soon after she started college. In her grief, she said, she soon learned that the coping mechanisms she had were based on hopelessness, not hopefulness. Told she was at high risk of suicide, she began researching hope. On the 30th anniversary of her dad’s death, Goetzke’s book, The Biggest Little Book About Hope, was released.
No one is hopeless at learning to be hopeful, she insisted.
“I can teach anyone to be hopeful, but it’s up to the person to do the work," she said.
Miller, of Arizona State, founded the Kids at Hope program in 2000. The name, he said, is to eliminate the “youth at risk” stereotype for those viewed as disadvantaged. When children with fewer advantages are labeled as “at risk,” he said, the expectation they will succeed is diminished.
The program now operates in 24 states, in 475 schools and juvenile justice systems. It inspires schools and organizations to create a culture and environment where all kids experience success.
“We introduced the science of hope through a series of training modules,” Miller said. “We translate the research into simple yet powerful principles and practices that demonstrate how to create and activate hope for all, by all.”
The basics, Miller said, are that children need to know adults believe in them and are willing to connect with them. Another key is to introduce a concept called mental time travel, which activates hope. It’s “the ability for the brain to imagine a future.”
To date, Kids at Hope has trained more than 125,000 adults and reached more than 1.1 million children, ages 3 to 18. With an “it takes a village” view, the organization has trained not only teachers, but social workers, bus drivers, custodians, superintendents, juvenile prosecuting attorneys, and others, Miller said.
“Hopeful people seem to do better in life than people without hope,” Miller said. “They do better socially, emotionally, economically, and live longer. “While squishy hope comes and goes, cognitive hope is a choice we get to make every day because it comes with a strategy.”
While definitions of hope vary, Miller likes this one: “If resilience is the ability to bounce back, hope is the ability to bounce forward.”