Hope Theory

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No matter how dark, if we kindle a fire, we can see. Hope brightens darkness, motivating energies to achieve goals. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “To live without Hope is to Cease to live.” Life is good. There is plenty to enjoy, but occasionally we’re knocked off our feet, unplanned tragedies swoop into protected zones, forcing change. Hope protects against despair during vexing moments. However, hope is more than a blind plea for rescue; hope motivates action. C. Richard Snyder championed Hope Theory, defining and researching hope, giving a clearer understanding of this staple concept of wellbeing. Snyder’s hope theory may benefit many in their search for wellness.

​Healing needs an underlying belief that rouses energy to act. We need to trust that personal skill, intelligence and resilience can successfully cope with adversity and navigate the obstructions. This hope creates solutions to obstacles, following proven paths when possible, or blazing new routes when necessary; This type of hope is a skill—a mindset.

In 1987, University of Kansas awarded C. Richard Snyder a one year sabbatical to research hope. He stepped away from his normal duties in the psychology department and delved into the aspirational world of hope. Snyder developed Hope Theory (Snyder, 2003).

Snyder defines hope as “a positive motivational state that is based on interactively derived sense of successful agency (goal-directed energy) and pathways (planning to meet goals)” (Snyder, Irving & Anderson, 1991). Hope, Snyder explains, has three essential components: goals, agency, and pathways. Snyder’s hope is different from common definitions that equate hope with desire. Snyder prefers a functional hope placed in legitimate possibilities, not unrealistic dreams. Snyder’s hope fuels creative planning and activates constructive action. Snyder presents hope not as an event but as a process, leading to goal fulfillment.

“​Snyder prefers a functional hope placed in legitimate possibilities, not unrealistic dreams.”

Hope and Motivation

I like self-motivating theories, and Snyder’s hope theory fits well with other popular theories of motivation. However, there are times when we just need any morsel of hope. A reason to believe the present will pass. When life surprises and outmatches, we need a few moments to close our eyes, pray for a rescue and hold on. We should only rely on thoughts of a magical escapes to recover with a brief respite, but then get back to the business of living; there’s work to done.

​If hopes remain empty wishes, the hope eventually fades; first to frustration, then to anger, followed by despair and eventually vanishing into apathy. Hope dies and we depress. Thomas Merton, in his classic book Thoughts in Solitude, reminds that “in order to keep hope alive, we must usually have some taste of victory” (1999).

Snyder’s definition correlates well with Apostle Paul’s teachings on hope. In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, He wrote, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3).

Paul taught that hope is born from character, and that character is forged by enduring suffering. Hope is part of a circular process, emerging from character and then strengthening resilience. When we successfully emerge from suffering, we gain confidence in ourselves. We’ve been there, we done that, and now believe in our ability to overcome—a form of resilience.

Hope and Action

​Angela Duckworth in her best selling book Grit also defines hope with action. She writes, “Hope is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance” (2018, location 1350). She explains, “grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future” (location 2441). We refer to our ability to visualize the impact of present behaviors on future events as episodic foresight.

Hope, according to Snyder, energizes pursuit of goals using willpower and way-power. Willpower is the driving force and way-power is the mental capacity to find effective possibilities (2003, Location 175-210).

Brené Brown also prefers Snyder’s action oriented definition. Brown explains, “Hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process” (2010, location 1093). She expands on this definition, “Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities” (location 1097).

Simply put, hope drives goal attainment—an action principle that strengthens resolve and immunizes against despair. Vague definitions immobilize. Hope, at least with Snyder’s definition, motivates action to pursue ideals; hope is an approach process—the opposite of depression which withdraws. We develop this hope, learning to transform hopeful wishing into effective willing. We don’t gamble on the taste of victory; we will it to fruition through effective action.

Hope Theory and Positive Psychology

​We speak kindly of hope in the wellness industry because it’s warm. Hope fits nicely with positive psychology and optimism, but to extract maximum benefits from Snyder’s research, we must grasp Snyder’s three elements of hope: Goals, Agency (willpower), and Pathways (way-power). We can’t just hope; we must hope for something—a goal. The defined destination anchors action, giving desires a target and a reachable conclusion.

Many definitions of hope suggest a blind optimism—a Pollyanna type. While hoping for rescue may temporarily relieve or rejuvenate, blind optimism has limits and even dangers. Overly optimistic investing in a teetering market can make us rich—or penniless. This version of optimism dismisses caution and throws chance into the air, begging the universe to bless. The universe may occasionally bless the hopeful not through intention but through lawful chance. Albeit, the universe doesn’t willingly neglect our wishes. Rather, the universe operates by laws that are blind to individual wishes. We learn false lessons from blessing of chance.

Unrealistic expectations set us up for a crash into hopelessness when the universe refuses to play. Steven Pinker warns, “The truth doesn’t care about our hopes, and sometimes it can force us to revisit those hopes in a liberating way” (2003, location 8586). When truth and hope collide, high-hope people openly investigate the conflict, adjusting impractical goals when necessary. Low-hope people, on the other hand, slip into despair, crying, “there’s nothing I can do!”

Our precarious belief that “things always happen for the better” leads down a dangerous path. When life’s vicissitudes strike, and they always do, our quaint beliefs are shaken. We find that “the better” doesn’t always materialize. Shocked by disappointment from faulty optimism, many crumble, demoralized from the unplanned wallop.

Hope more than Wishing

The process of hope, instead of unsubstantiated wishing, relies on controllable forces of proven resources (personal and external) to surmount difficulties. We act to fulfill our goals because we believe we will succeed. We also trust that we are intelligent enough to find a successful pathway, leading to the desired outcome.

Hopelessness doesn’t come from suffering but from suffering we think we can’t control. When we are besieged by addiction, disloyalty or financial collapse, we can respond with constructive action. We catch our breath, examine the problem, determine our goal, and execute a plan. Often problems of greater magnitude require wisdom beyond our current development, but high hope people can deal with this, they humbly obtain the necessary knowledge, drawing on available resources.

Complexity and Hope Theory

The pathway through difficulties is never simple. Enduring suffering, persevering, and developing character are just words until experienced. Life’s not a linear accession from point A to point B. Suffering sucks. Troubling events consume physical and mental resources. We are stunned and exhausted. The possibility of failure is real, and despair looms.  Often, when pushed to the extreme, the thought of giving up, surrendering to the foe, relieves the intense pressure of resisting.  

This helpless resignation is demonstrated by Martin Seligman in his helplessness experiments. Seligman conditioned dogs to be helpless by placing them in shuttle boxes and forcing them to endure painful shocks. A harsh and inhumane experiment by today’s standards. The dogs learned to be helpless. Later, when an escape route was available, instead of leaping to freedom, the dogs simply gave up (Seligman, 1972).

We, after repeated failures, often give up and endure unnecessary shocks. We lose hope. “Life,” we cry out in surrender, “you win!” We need grace to save us. And then, in a moment of complete despair, something happens. Grace descends. We find strength, gain a glimpse of hope and act. We crawl, stand and then run.

A Personal Example of Recovering Hope

During the latter months of 2008, my entire life collapsed. The weight of lost dreams intruded on every wakeful moment. I panicked. Outmatched and afraid, I began to search, first by reading then with practicing. My first books were from the mystical-religious-psychology realm. I devoured instruction from Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckart Tolle, and the late Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. I complimented reading with a rudimentary practice of meditation. And then my miracle happened.

A small flash of peace penetrated the darkness. It came, almost imperceptible, slowly expanded and then vanished. The entire soul-stirring moment lasted only a few seconds. The impact, however, still remains.

I somehow survived. I kept moving my feet. In the darkest moments, I believed there was an escape and courageously sought help.

Experience and Hope

The brief experience strengthened my hope. I knew that joy existed somewhere beyond my current troubles. The darkness wasn’t a permanent fixture but a passing phase. This small taste of victory motivated more action, experimenting with other pathways that would eventually lead to escape from the nasty demons haunting my soul. My experience embodied the concepts included in Snyder’s hope theory.

I gained understanding from the poignant lessons of felt experience. These types of lessons tend to integrate at a deeper level. Duckworth explains that extreme emotions combined with successful escape rewires the brain. She writes “for rewiring to happen, you have to activate the control circuitry at the same time as those low-level areas. That happens when you experience mastery at the same time as adversity” (2018, location 2749).

Whether I happened on a solution or time healed my wound, there’s no way to know. Life has no control groups to compare. However, by attributing recovery to my actions, I gained confidence in my ability to overcome suffering. The sequence of intense emotions, purposeful action and escape stamped a lesson into my brain, creating confidence, and heightening future expectations of mastery over impeding obstacles littering my path.

Hope Part of a Feedback Loop

​Success and failures provide continual feedback. “We surround ourselves with goals, hopes, and expectations, and then feel pleasure and pain in relation to our progress” (Haidt, 2006, Location 1709). High-hope people utilize these emotions, both positive and negative, to realign their movement, refining behavior to achieve their goal. Low-hope people interpret pain from lack of progress as a sign of inability to succeed and they give up. High and low hope people interpret emotional feedback differently.

Seligman’s theory of learned optimism sheds light on effective interpretations. “Finding permanent and universal causes of good events along with temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope” (2004).

Basically, we must see failures as temporary with a solvable solution. Snyder’s hope is believing a solvable solution lies in our own abilities. “Yes, I failed. Yes, this sucks; but I’m smart enough to discover an exit route.” For example, our goal to solve a child’s addiction may prove unsolvable demanding a shift to an achievable objectives such as adjusting to the reality of his or her addiction and extending compassion, embracing patience, and giving support when needed.

Perpetual Cycle of Hope. Psychology Fanatic
Psychology Fanatic

Self-Efficacy and Hope

​Our self-efficacy depends on Merton’s occasional tastes of victory and this can only occur with realistic goals. We must channel the energetic goal pursuit with appropriate action, continually assessing behaviors and consequences, extracting pertinent information for self-corrective adjustments that eventually lead to victory.

C.S. Lewis reminds that “failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

Paul Tillich wrote, “Hope is easy for the foolish.” I suspect he was referring to optimism untethered to reality, requiring no personal effort. The type of hope that doesn’t motivate but simply soothes. With faulty hope, we silently suffer waiting for a magical rescue.

Losing time invested in ineffective plans is disheartening. Many happenings are foreign, straining our cognitive resources to find an effective response, requiring multiple trials and failures before a workable solution is discovered. In Snyder’s hope theory, hope is a cognitive counterpart to this complicated process of planning and experimenting.

​We often don’t know the ultimate solution but trust our ability to find one. Enthusiastically searching for a solution is an intentional state of mind, trudging through failures is the way posts on the pathway to eventual success. We stumble, evaluate and self-correct.

Hope Theory and Personal Development

​The concept of hope existed long before Snyder’s hope theory. Snyder just added clarity.
Many notable therapies focus on developing hope, allowing bolstered hope to motivate change. The conviction, “I can change” is an expression of hope, infused with sufficient self-efficacy to affect change. Albert Ellis calls these hopeful expressions rational beliefs and a staple of his Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) (2002, P.42).

Opposite expressions, such as Becks “cognitive triad” of depression: “I’m no good,” “My world is bleak,” and “My future is hopeless,” dampen the hope of discovering a pathway of escape. Depressing expression perceive the impeding obstacle as ominous and escape impossible (Haidt, 2006). These are “patterns of depressogenic thinking” (Schwartz, 2003, p. 245). William Glassier, founder of choice theory, calls these expressions depressing and that depressing creates misery and destroys hope (1999, 126).

Fang Mei Law and Gwo Jen Guo conducted a study of the effects of hope on women in a Taiwan prison for drug charges. The study measured hope by the women’s ability in setting goals and pursuing goals. Utilizing Snyder’s measurements of hope, they reported that providing Choice-Based therapy strengthened the women’s hope, improved goal setting and led to higher rates of recovery from addictions than the control group (2017).

Determination and Hope Theory

Bullheaded determination is not enough. No matter how fast and long we run, if we run in the wrong direction, we’ll never reach the destination. We must recognize when action moves us further from our desired destination. When we fail, we must sift through relevant information, correctly identify factors that can be improved and then adjust. Let me reiterate this: knowing what isn’t working is as critical as knowing what is working.

Ann Harbison, a doctor at Stanford Children Health advises, “Never let a good crisis go to waste” (Ben-Shahar, 2007, p. 97) . Evidently, crisis is the ultimate chance to learn. But learning from crisis is a practice in honesty and humility. Albert Bandura wrote, “People are not much affected by paired stimulation unless they recognize that events  correlated” (1977). We must attribute causes of failure to conditions we control. This is way-power according to Snyder’s hope theory.

We need hope to achieve goals and brighten momentary darkness. Without hope, we will not invest the energy. Through hope, we routinely taste victory, keeping our internal fires burning. In conclusion, hope blesses all aspects of our lives, lightening our load and strengthening our resolve. We can accomplish many great things if we believe enough to energetically and intelligently pursue.

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Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007) Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st edition (May 31, 2007)

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing; 1 edition

Duckworth, A. (2018). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner; Reprint edition.

Ellis, A. (2002) Overcoming Resistance: A Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Integrated Approach, 2nd Edition (Springer Series on Behavior Therapy and Behavioral Medicine). Springer Publishing Company; 2 edition

Glassier, W. (1999) Choice Theory: A New Psychology Of Personal Freedom. HarperCollins Publishers.

Haidt, J. (2006) The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1 edition

Law, F., & Guo, G. (2017). Choice and Hope. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(3), 310-333.
Merton, T. (1999).  Thoughts In Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Reprint edition

Seligman, M. (2004) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Atria Books; Reprint edition

Seligman, M. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23(1), 407-412.
Snyder, C. R. (2003) Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Simon and Schuster.

Schwartz, J. M (2003). The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. Harper Perennial.

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