“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” ~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
Of all the character strengths, one of my very favorites is the strength of “hope, optimism, and future-mindedness.” When you have hope, when you believe there’s a reason to keep on, your life takes on a luster and an energy that encourages you even on the darkest days.
I’m talking about hope as a noun, a state of being. Yes, sometimes it has an object attached to it and acts like a verb: I hope he wins. I hope it doesn’t rain. But even then, what we’re really saying is that we have hope inside us, that it’s active in our lives.
Hope is a kind of positive expectancy that things will turn out well. It believes that good outcomes are possible, even against all odds. And it believes that even when the outcome we wanted doesn’t materialize, we’ll eventually discover that, in the long run. our disappointments contribute to our greater good.
The creators of positive psychology’s Character Strengths Survey describe someone who scores high in hope, optimism and future-mindedness this way: “You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.”
The future is a pretty big place. Maybe believing that we can influence it is a safer bet than believing we can control it. But hope and optimism definitely give us stronger cards to play, and they motivate us to take the actions we can to bring our influence to bear.
How to Build Hope
If you’re a bit low on hope right now, I have good news for you. Hope, like all the character strengths, is a bit like a muscle. Give it some attention and exercise, and you can build it up.
Hope expert Dr. Anthony Scioli suggests five strategies for building hope:
- Set Goals. Pick something that you would like to accomplish. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something you think is within your capabilities that you would feel good about accomplishing. Having a goal gives you some clarity in your life and a sense of purpose.
- Enjoy Good Relationships. From your list of family members and acquaintances, pick one or two with whom you can be open, who won’t make you feel guarded or defensive. As one of your goals, make a decision to spend time with them once or twice a week, even its just for a good chat on the phone.
- Manage Your Stress. Dr. Scioli suggests that you identify your preferred way of coping with stress: “Problem solving, seeking support from others, praying, planning in advance, or avoidance.” Then, he suggests, “make a commitment to practice one or two strategies that are not part of your normal coping repertoire.
- Deepen Your Spirituality. What feels spiritual to you? Spending time in communion with your God, or higher power? Involvement in a social organization? Being with good friends? Think about ways that you can spend more of your time in this area to build your sense of faith in life’s goodness.
- Develop a Personal Mission Statement. What would you name as the central theme for your life? What would give you a sense of purpose and meaning? Accomplishing some larger goal? Mastering a skill? Serving others in some way? Dr. Scioli suggests placing your written statement in a visible place to motivate you when life threatens to get the best of you.
Other practices that can help you build your hope muscle include:
- Taking care of your health: It’s a lot easier to feel hope when you’re full of vitality. Get enough sleep and exercise, eat wholesome, unprocessed foods, and keep yourself well-hydrated.
- Watching your self-talk: Practice noticing what’s right in your life, what’s good in a situation, how well you did something, what traits you appreciate in yourself. Learn to pat yourself on the back now and then.
- Practicing gratitude: It will help you notice the goodness that surrounds you and to develop your sense of life’s bounteousness and opportunities.
- Practicing self-compassion: Learn to be kinder and less blaming toward yourself. Become your own best friend and supporter. Give yourself credit for your efforts and positive attributes.
- Accepting personal responsibility: When you accept that you’re in charge of creating your future success, you hopefulness naturally increases.
- Keeping in motion: Hope thrives on action. Keep moving toward your goals.
Hope and optimism are strongly related. Optimism actively looks for the good in situations, people, and things. Optimism greases the wheels of hope and keeps it rolling.
Luckily, Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, researched optimism in depth and describes what separates the optimist from his negative cousin in his book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.
You can check out my article, How to Make Your Optimism Soar, to learn how to incorporate more of this hopeful viewpoint into your life.
We live in fast-paced, challenging, often distressful times. When you look around the world and see all the problems, it’s easy to lose your senses of optimism and hope. The potential for doom can easily eclipse our perception of the powerful potential for triumph that exists as well.
Cultivating your own personal sense of hope and optimism is one way you can help tip the balance in a positive direction. You can use this strength to help make the most of your own life, to motivate you toward greater creativity, service and productiveness, and that’s one more life well-lived.
And besides, it makes life a lot more fun. We used to call it “living with heart.”
To send you off with a taste of it, here’s a song extolling its virtue, from the 1958 movie, “Damn Yankees.”
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