The psychology definition of hope is that it is an optimistic state of mind that is based on the expectation of positive outcomes with respect to a person’s future life or the world at large.
On the surface of it hope appears to be irrational. It takes into account all the odds present in a specific scenario ascribes values to them that are weighed towards things going right as opposed to things going wrong and pre-supposes the future will have a positive outcome as a result. In that respect hope seems no different to wishful thinking but there is a significant difference. Neuroscience shows that wishful thinking is a neural mechanism that activates the reward system of the brain and affects motivation so that we can keep on going in the face of adversity. Hope, on the other hand, is a goal-orientated calculation that uses agency (the desire to achieve goals) and pathways (the means through which goals are achieved) to create a mental buffer against anxiety.
This means that trait optimism (as hope is called) has a specific biological function. Anxiety impairs cognition and emotions and affects health, in the long term, through a number of neuroendocrine, neurotransmitter, and neuroanatomical disruptions. Hope produced corresponding neuroendocrine and neurotransmitter secretions that resulted in a reduction in the number of disruptions experienced by the bilateral medial orbitofrontal cortex which is involved in reward-related processing, motivation production, problem solving and goal-directed behaviors.
In plain English hope created neurochemical states that shielded the brain from the worst effects of the neurotransmitters produced by a state of anxiety and gave rise to a more regulated behavior. In his paper on the Evolution of Hope and Despair Randolph Nesse says that:
Emotions can be useful only if they influence the future, so it is not surprising that they are aroused mainly by events that change our appraisals of whether we will be able to reach our goals.
The benefits of hope in the individual’s ability to withstand adversity and maintain focus and cognitive effectiveness have led to the creation of the “Reasonable Hope Model” where specific actions, undertaken even when adversity occurs lead to small, beneficial transformations that may precipitate bigger, more positive events and outcomes.
If you are facing a tough situation and are looking for a way to manage your sense of anxiety and become more hopeful here’s what you need to do:
- Assess the situation you are facing
- Focus on what’s working instead of what’s broken
- Create goals designed to get you to the outcome you want
- Break each goal down into tasks and focus on getting those tasks done
- Assess each task as you go along and fine-tune its execution to give you the best results
Manage uncertainty and fear better by applying the expert techniques used by experts from the world of the military, elite sports and business.