Hope is one of those things we all understand yet often find difficult to explain. Great thinkers have expressed thoughts about this sometimes elusive concept across the centuries. Aristotle shared the belief that “Hope is a waking dream.” Though this statement may do little to expand your understanding, it is an interesting place to begin and quickly brings to mind the value of dreams in the larger context of life. 

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If we search the dictionary for improved clarity, we find that the word can be used both as a noun and a verb. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers two definitions for the noun “hope.” The first definition paints hope as a combination of desire and expectation or the belief in it coming true. For example, many people approach each New Year with great hope and set goals as a means of molding their desire into reality in the coming twelve months.

The second, more arcane definition offered, is synonymous with trust. For example, one often expresses hope in those in power, a new policy, or a change in their lives. When hope is used as a verb, it becomes an act of wanting something to occur or be true. 

Whether you are placing hope in the ethics of the company you work for (where hope is used as a noun) or are expressing hopes for a bright future (in which case the word is a verb), the concept remains one of a combination of positive anticipation in a desired outcome becoming reality.

What is Hope?

As Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see the light despite all of the darkness.” Hope is, in a nutshell, the constant that makes life's difficulties bearable. Indeed, the opposite of hope is despair. For those in the field of psychology, despair is understood to lead to many undesirable outcomes. When a person finds themselves without hope, they are prone to develop depression. These people are also more likely to struggle to make progress toward positive outcomes and may give up trying to improve their lives as they believe the things they want can't be obtained. In this way, the very act of hoping is an act of faith in one's ability to succeed.

Hope, then is a necessary ingredient in a person's mental health, physical health, and overall well-being. Positive psychology views hope as a cognitive state derived from successful goal-directed action. Where despair, or hopelessness, robs an individual of optimism about their future, hopeful individuals are more able to continue to feel hopeful when times are challenging.

While it is easy to see how hope provides support for a person by improving their mental well-being, you may be surprised to find out that it also supports their physical health. It not only improves a person’s immediate outlook and makes them more likely to be an optimistic person, but it also supports a person’s immune system by counteracting stress.

Feeling hopeful improves an individual’s level of self-confidence and thereby helps them to overcome feelings of self-doubt and develop a more positive outlook. Hopeful people experience fewer feelings of sadness and anxiety and are more likely to persevere until they obtain the positive outcome they desire. Hope is important because, without a belief in their ability to obtain their desire, individuals fail to grow and thrive. Unlike wishful thinking and false hope, hope is the necessary perspective from which an individual can develop goals and therefore move toward a better future.

Is Hope an Emotion?

girl with encouraging message that says "believe in your dreams" written on her hand

Although hope directly affects an individual’s emotions, it isn’t in itself an emotion. Emotions are mental states brought on by external sensations or internal thoughts. Emotions run the gamut from joy to fear, anger to surprise, and disgust to interest. When an individual experiences an emotion, they feel physical sensations connected with their emotional experience, and these emotions often motivate the person to act. Hope, like optimism, is a way of being that supports a person’s motivation toward self-improvement. Without hope, one is unlikely to exert personal will and resources toward change. This then means that those who refrain from hoping are less likely to act in ways that improve their lives and may find themselves trapped in bad times when life presents them with inevitable challenges.

Hope is a more active companion to wishing and is in many ways related to faith. Although faith, as it is associated with hope, isn't necessarily a matter of believing in a higher power, an individual must have faith in their ability to change the situations they find themselves struggling in. If the individual doesn't believe they can achieve the thing they strive for, they will stop trying. Therefore, hope is important in helping people stay motivated when they find themselves struggling.

While people generally offer up a wish for the things they desire, they generally accept a passive role in making their wishes come true. When people begin developing hope, they actively participate in moving their desire forward. Therefore, the more hope a person has, the more likely they are to develop the personal motivation that allows them to institute personal goals. As you can see, real hope is closely tied to personal agency and goal attainment than the more passive exercise of wishing.

What Hope is Not

Hope is akin to optimism, just as despair is akin to pessimism. As the Irish poet Seamus Heaney stated, “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.” The primary difference between hope and optimism is the effort one expends toward the focus of their hope. The optimistic willingness of those who have developed increased levels of hope to expend energy toward their goals leads to their success.

What Are The Two Types of Goal Outcomes in Hope Theory?

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Hope Theory, developed by psychologist C. R. Snyder, proposed that hope is a “positive motivational state” born from how an individual thinks. Snyder’s theory identifies three basic concepts. These three elements are goals, pathways, and agency.

The first of these elements, goals, are the intended outcome or desired result of an individual’s efforts. Goals are the targets toward which one's hopes are aimed. 

The second element, pathways, are the routes by which an individual obtains their goals. When an individual establishes a plan for obtaining their hoped-for goals, the path they set out for moving forward is their pathway. Pathways not only establish a plan of attack and place an individual on a road in the right direction to obtain success, but they include specific ideas for dealing with the obstacles, or roadblocks, the individual is likely to meet as they move toward their desire. 

The third element in this theory is agency. Agency is an individual’s belief in their ability to obtain their goal. It is the sense of agency that offers individuals the motivation they need to keep them from staying stuck in life situations they find disagreeable and propels them toward their goals. 

According to Snyder’s theory, thoughts and emotions interact. Individuals who can create realistic pathways to reach their goals experience more optimism, improved energy levels, and greater levels of happiness. Likewise, the increased happiness, optimism, and energy individuals experience will lead to increased creativity and boldness in their thoughts and ideas that are more likely to allow them to create successful solutions to the problems they face. 

Type 1: Positive Goal Outcome

According to Snyder, people organize the efforts they use to obtain a hoped-for outcome in two specific ways. Generally, when we think about goal setting we think of how individuals create positive goals, establish pathways, and exert agency to excel in something or attain a hoped-for outcome. For example, many people establish early goals related to the career they seek to establish. When they have successfully attained their goal, it is often to increase their ability to positively impact the world around them, to create a positive lifestyle, and increase their positive outcomes.

Type 2: Negative Goal Outcome

The second type of goal outcome that Snyder’s theory supports is often less obvious. However, many people establish goals, develop pathways, and exert their agency to decrease the likelihood of, avoid, or ending a negative or feared outcome. For example, many people are motivated by a desire to avoid poverty, decrease the likelihood of future illness, reduce the impact of chronic illnesses, limit the pain of rejection, or avoid the unnecessary end of a relationship. These people may establish pathways that help them decrease the likelihood of negative outcomes they wish to avoid. 

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What is the Importance of Hope?

Hoping is important for an individual to live a meaningful and happy life. Research indicates that people with high levels of hope are more likely to perform well academically, are more diligent in solving problems, have habits that support improved mental and physical well-being, and experience more satisfaction in life. These people are better able to cope with and recover from bouts of illness and are more likely to take an active approach to solve struggles when they happen. They also have improved feelings of purpose and meaning in their lives and are more likely to attain the goals they set for themselves. 

When we look at young people, research indicates that hopefulness is associated with the individual’s ability to cope. It improves their overall sense of well-being. It diminishes the impact of negative life events and feelings of sadness and pain. Hope also acts as a protective factor against negative thinking and suicidal ideation.

What Benefits Do You Get From Having Hope?

Hope is an important aspect of human life. Hoping gives us the motivation to face life's challenges and improves both our physical and mental health. Hope also supports the development of healthy relationships, supports our belief in our ability to achieve success, foster’s an individual’s sense of humor, and encourages resilience in the face of illness.

1. More Positive Emotions.

Hope fosters a person's positive emotions by fostering an improved sense of humor. It is also associated with an improved sense of purpose and meaning in an individual's life. People with a strong sense of hope experience more joy and gratitude than others and exhibit improved resilience in the face of adversity. Hopeful people are more likely to maintain healthy relationships, which in turn helps minimize the likelihood they will encounter negative emotions.

2. Better Mental and Physical Health.

Hope works to counteract stress, thereby decreasing the likelihood of individuals developing feelings of anxiety and depression. Reducing stressful reactions improves their physical health outcomes. The decrease in unhealthy emotions hopeful people experience can lead to a reduced risk of heart disease, suppressed immune systems, and stress-related illnesses. Hope supports positive emotions, which reduces an individual's likelihood of experiencing depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide and self-harm.

3. Stronger Sense of Purpose and Meaning.

Hope supports an individual's perception of purpose by supporting their belief in their ability to improve their lives and obtain their goals. Those without hope experience more self-doubt which in turn often leads them to remain stuck in unhealthy life patterns. Therefore, they are more likely to accept meaningless pursuits and settle for easy options even when such options offer no sense of meaning. Due to its connection to goals and motivation, hope is essential in helping people develop healthy self belief and obtain a purposeful and meaningful life.

4. Higher Levels of Self-Esteem and Self-Worth.

As we have discussed above, hopeful individuals have a greater sense of being able to successfully motivate the struggles that happen in their lives. This perception of competence supports an improved sense of self-esteem and helps individuals improve their overall sense of self.

5. Better Social Life and Relationships.

Hope has been shown to improve an individual's level of happiness. It supports an improved sense of well-being, greater levels of personal joy, and increased perceptions of gratitude. It is easy to see that increased levels of hope are likely to make individuals more pleasant companions.

As hopeful people are also more likely to believe that their social and relationship goals are likely to be obtainable, they are more likely to put the work into maintaining their relationships and work toward goals that support their continuation.

What Can You Do if You Feel Hopeless?

Life happens, and this means that you are going to experience struggles no matter how much effort you put into your pursuits. Luckily, you don't have to remain stuck when you find yourself in a hopeless place.

Here are some simple things you can do to help you reduce feelings of hopelessness. Make a plan. The simple act of having a plan can often alleviate feelings of pointlessness.

You may also want to try some problem-solving. Sometimes simply breaking a complex situation into its parts will allow you to see your way forward.

Think About What You Can Gain From Being Hopeless.

When we get down, many of us begin to lose our sense of hope. However, something we often fail to understand is that being hopeless can meet a need.

When you find yourself feeling hopeless, take a moment to honestly assess what you may be gaining from it. For example, if you are struggling with paying off student debts, you may find that your hopelessness surrounding the depth of your debt may be keeping you from stretching outside of your comfort zone to obtain a better-paying job. In this way, the hopelessness you are feeling may be acting as a protection against the potential disappointment of being rejected.

Consider What You Could Gain From Having Hope

Just as you may need to reflect on what hopelessness may provide you with, you may find that taking a moment to honestly think about what you could gain from developing a more hopeful outlook gives you clarity. We've all heard the mantra, "fake it until you make it." If you create a plan of action based on things you might take if you were feeling hopeful, you may find yourself feeling increasingly hopeful.

Talk To a Trusted Friend or Family Member for Help.

If the previous suggestions don't work, you may want to seek out the support of someone you trust. Even if your friends and family are unable to help you solve the issue that is making you feel hopeless, the simple act of discussing your problem and the feelings that accompany them can be helpful. Sometimes simply having to explain a problem to someone else allows you to see solutions you may not originally have seen.

How Hope Helps Motivate You In Life

As we have discussed at various points in the article, hope adds to an individual's resilience in the face of adversity. It allows you to see the bright side of life and maintain motivation in times of adversity.

Does Having Hope Improve Your Physical Health?

Research indicates that hopeful individuals are more likely to experience a reduction in pain than those with low levels of hope. Hope also acts as a barrier to many of the negative emotions that lead to poor health outcomes.

How Does Having Hope Affect Your Mental and Physical Health?

Studies tell us that hope for the future helps build a person’s resilience. Believing that one can improve their future helps individuals manage their anxieties, lower feelings of depression, and ward off the negative impact of trauma.

The belief in being able to successfully meet goals related to physical health encourages hopeful people to set and strive for healthy lifestyle changes that often lead to improved health outcomes. The self-worth that hopeful individuals experience is likely to give them the courage to set goals others may find overwhelming.


Hope reminds us that struggles can be overcome, and it helps an individual continue to look on the bright side of the situations they find themselves in. It allows people to get out of bed each morning and go to work when they find themselves in a position they find unfulfilling. Hope propels college students to expend hours studying for their final exams. It helps us when we are struggling with illnesses to continue to work toward better physical health. And hope ultimately leads struggling individuals to their success.

Hope is not the passive expectation that things will magically improve. Therefore, there is a significant difference between wishing, magical thinking, blind faith, and hope. Hope is the belief that one can overcome obstacles and endure adversity. It is the often elusive perspective, necessary as the ground upon which self-improvement is built. It is only through hope that one has the courage to establish the goals that will allow them to improve the trajectory of their lives.

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