The Psychology of Hope: How to Build Hope and a Better Future
The word hope painted on a metal and wood structure that looks like a bleacherPhoto Credit: Steve Snodgrass

When thinking about large-scale challenges the world faces today—from coronavirus to systemic racism to climate change—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, or to wonder how our individual actions can make a difference. However, researchers who study positive psychology suggest that, in situations such as these, cultivating hope can be incredibly powerful: it can help propel us towards our goals, even when things seem stressful or uncertain. Below we’ll review what hope is (and how it differs from optimism), how it benefits us, and ways to increase our own levels of hope—as well as how we can foster hope in our broader communities.

How Do Psychologists Define Hope?

In an article for The Conversation, psychologist Everett Worthington explains that “hope is not Pollyannaish optimism – the assumption that a positive outcome is inevitable. Instead, hope is a motivation to persevere toward a goal or end state, even if we’re skeptical that a positive outcome is likely.” In other words, hope doesn’t mean taking for granted that things will work out—instead, hope is a mindset that helps us work towards our goals, even when we face significant adversity.

According to psychologist Charles Snyder and his colleagues, who developed hope theory, hope has two components: pathways thinking and agency. Pathways thinking involves being able to think of many different ways of achieving something. Agency involves being motivated and feeling confident that one can achieve their goals. To measure pathways thinking, psychologists might ask someone how much they agree with a statement such as, “There are lots of ways around any problem.” For agency, psychologists might ask someone to indicate how much they agree with statements like, “I energetically pursue my goals.” (Both of these statements are from Snyder’s Adult Hope Scale, which you can take here.)

“Hope is not Pollyannaish optimism – the assumption that a positive outcome is inevitable. Instead, hope is a motivation to persevere toward a goal or end state, even if we’re skeptical that a positive outcome is likely.” – Professor Everett Worthington

How Does Hope Differ from Optimism?

In surveys, psychologists have found that hope and optimism are related—more hopeful people also tend to be more optimistic—but the two concepts also have important differences.

According to Snyder and his colleagues, one major difference between hope and optimism is hope’s focus on agency. As professor Utpal Dholakia explains in a blog post for Psychology Today, hopeful people don’t simply believe that good things will happen—they believe that their actions can bring about their desired goals. Because of this, hope may be especially beneficial for people in stressful or challenging situations—in situations where a good outcome doesn’t necessarily seem like a given. Dholakia writes that hope is especially crucial “when the chips are down, and when we need a powerful shot of motivation to help us find new ways to reach our goal and push us forward towards its achievement.”

Benefits of Hope

Better Mental Health

Psychologists have found that people who score higher on measures of hope also tend to have higher levels of well-being. In a study published earlier this year led by researcher Katelyn Long of Harvard University, researchers looked at levels of hope and well-being in a sample of nearly 13,000 participants. The researchers found that more hopeful participants reported higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of depression, a stronger sense of purpose and meaning, and less loneliness.

Why is hope linked to well-being? One possibility suggested by Snyder and his colleagues is that hopeful people may cope with stressful events in healthier ways: they’re less likely to avoid the problem, they can come up with multiple ways of dealing with the problem, and are more likely to be able to find silver linings in the situation. Additionally, they’re less likely to end up catastrophizing about the situation.

Academic Achievement

Since hope helps propel us towards our goals, another domain in which hope can be beneficial is in the context of academic achievement. In one study, researchers measured college students’ levels of hope when they first started college and then followed the students for the next six years. They found that more hopeful students earned higher GPAs, were more likely to graduate, and were less likely to drop out.

Better Physical Health

Hope appears to have benefits for physical health as well. Hope may help people adopt healthy habits: for example, Snyder and his colleagues report that people who are more hopeful are more likely to exercise. A 2017 paper found that hope also appears to be linked to higher levels of life satisfaction in people with chronic illnesses.

Additional evidence for the link between hope and physical health comes from the study by Long and her colleagues. Participants who had higher levels of hope at the beginning of the study were less likely to be diagnosed with cancer or develop chronic pain. The researchers even found that higher levels of hope were linked to a lower risk of mortality—suggesting that hopeful people may live longer.

How to Become More Hopeful

Hope in Times of Adversity

Psychologists have found that there are many ways we can work to keep up hope in stressful and overwhelming situations. Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge the reality that there’s always hope. Let me repeat that: there’s always hope, no matter how difficult or dire a situation may seem. Thoughts and feelings connected to hopelessness are almost always tied to some type of cognitive distortion that’s skewing reality, with the common one being what’s known as ‘Fortune Telling’ or ‘Jumping to Conclusions’. This type of cognitive distortion involves making a negative prediction about the future—even when the facts don’t warrant such a conclusion—and being convinced that this prediction is an established fact. (An example of this kind of cognitive distortion might be someone making a small mistake at work and assuming they will be fired as a result—even though their boss has been reasonable and understanding when coworkers have made similar mistakes.)

Even in extreme circumstances—such as being diagnosed with a terminal illness—hope can still play a powerful role. The fact remains that nobody, not even the best doctors, can predict the exact course the disease might take. For example, there are thousands of examples of individuals defying all odds and going into remission, or living much longer than expected. Psychiatrist and best-selling author of The Feeling Good Handbook, David Burns, points out that hope can also promote well-being among individuals who have received a terminal diagnosis. Burns explores this very experience with a woman he knows well who has just been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer; over the course of a live therapy session, she emerges much more hopeful and positive than when she started, even amidst the troubling uncertainty of her diagnosis.

It’s important to remember that loss of hope is the result of a cognitive distortion—a biased way of viewing a situation based on what one has learned in the past (which may be in part fueled by a biochemical imbalance that requires treatment). Hope is about the future and technically speaking, it remains wide open and full of possibility. Yes, there are constraints throughout life, but there are also many more creative options yet to be discovered. Never forget that.

Tools for Cultivating Hope

Psychology professor Everett Worthington recommends seeking out inspirational media (such as a favorite podcast) and finding “heroes of hope” to turn to when we’re feeling stuck or uninspired: he gives the examples of Nelson Mandela and Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who inspired the film Hidden Figures. (You can also start compiling a list of inspirational media and writing down your hope heroes now—so that they’re available to refer back to later.) Read about (or listen to) how these folks faced and overcame adversity against all odds; you will think and feel different after.

When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, keep in mind that building hope can start with small steps. In a blog post for Psychology Today, psychologist Karyn Hall suggests breaking down a problem into small, manageable steps—and reminds us that these small steps add up. She also reminds us that simple activities—such as making your bed—can help us feel more confident and in control.

It’s also important to remember that building hope isn’t something that you have to do alone—psychotherapy can help to challenge cognitive distortions and replace them with more adaptive and hopeful ways of thinking. Snyder and his colleagues suggest that—regardless of the type of therapy being practiced—a reason therapy works is because it increases hope: a therapist works to help their client find new ways of coping with their problems and find the motivation and confidence to work towards their goals.

Helping Others Become Hopeful

According to Snyder and his colleagues, hope theory doesn’t just apply to individuals—it can be used to understand groups as well. When we’re facing pressing social issues, increasing hope can be beneficial to bring about change in the broader community. For example, education professor Sarah Stitzlein points out that it’s important for teachers to inculcate a sense of political hope among students by helping students to learn about real-world issues and to find ways of challenging the status quo. She gives the example of the Parkland students, who lobbied for change in the aftermath of the tragedy at their school.

Importantly, working to bring about change to help others can make us feel more hopeful as well. Writer Anne Lamott writes that working for environmental causes can counter the sense of overwhelm that we might feel when we think about large-scale problems such as climate change. Lamott explains that “by showing up with hope to help others, I’m guaranteed that hope is present. Then my own hope increases. By creating hope for others, I end up awash in the stuff.” Similarly, in a blog post for Psychology Today, Philip Zimbardo and Rosemary Sword suggest that one way to become more hopeful is to help others and lobby for social change (for example, by volunteering, calling your elected representatives to voice support for causes that are important to you, or attending political marches).

“By showing up with hope to help others, I’m guaranteed that hope is present. Then my own hope increases. By creating hope for others, I end up awash in the stuff.” – Anne Lamott

Reading about Lamott, Sword, and Zimbardo’s suggestions made me think of one of my own heroes of hope: Leslie Knope, from the show Parks and Recreation. In one episode, Leslie applies for a federal government grant to clean up a river in her town—only to find out that she can’t meet with anyone in person about her application; instead, she is asked to leave her application in a bin with numerous other applications. Instead of waiting to hear if her grant application was approved, Leslie takes charge of the situation: she sets aside a weekly time and starts a river clean-up on her own. To me, this story seems to be the core of what hope is. Optimism might mean simply trusting that the grant will be funded, but hope means being motivated to find a Plan B or a Plan C if things don’t work out as you originally intended. In this context, working to foster feelings of hope in situations of stress and uncertainty doesn’t just increase our own well-being—it helps us feel empowered to work towards a better future.

Please note: if you are in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at US phone number 1-800-273-8255; the Crisis Text Line; or Befrienders Worldwide. The content provided here and throughout is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.  Please consult directly with your medical provider on your specific needs.  

Sources and Additional Reading:

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.  In addition to HealthyPsych, Elizabeth’s writing has also been published by the Greater Good Science Center.

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