We live in anxious times — politically, socially, economically, and increasingly environmentally. More and more it seems that more and more is in turmoil. All this has been weighing heavily on me lately and, to be honest, I’ve been finding it difficult to have much hope for the future. But, considering hope is one of the hallmarks of not only healthy faith but also healthy psychology, this dip in hope is clearly something I need to work through. And so, this week, my goal was to cultivate hope. Specifically, I used an adapted form of Seligman et al’s famed Three Good Things gratitude exercise, intentionally looking for signs of hope. This week, my sacred practice was Three Hopeful Things.
Hope is one of the most important emotions, and tools really, we have in life. And yet it’s surprisingly difficult to define. The best I’ve been able to compile is to say that hope is the capacity to see and work toward a better future. This is certainly how the Hebrew Scriptures understand it. One Proverb, for example, urges parents to discipline their children “while there is hope” (19.18). It’s an instructive, if simple, example. It connects hope to such traits as optimism to achieve a goal (a better future is possible for their family), resilience in their sense of agency (the things the parents need to do to achieve this goal are within their power and control), and discovering pathways to achieve it (there are specific actions the parents can take to help resolve the situation). And yet, hope can’t be limited to these types of traits either. It has a deeper quality to it that these psychological traits can’t quite capture. The New Testament book of Hebrews refers to hope as an anchor for the soul (6.19), and I think this offers a helpful insight. Hope is something heavy and secure that goes into our very depths and empowers us to demonstrate those traits of optimism, agency, and creativity in finding pathways. What gives hope this weight and power is faith, trust in something beyond our immediate situation. This trust can be in many things: our abilities and past successes, strong political systems, communities and family, the human spirit, or — and for people of religious faith primarily — God.
Without hope, whether out of cynicism or disappointment and learned helplessness, we tend simply to give up. As psychologist Karyn Hall bluntly put it, “When you have no hope, you see any efforts to change your life as futile.” And so, hope is essential as a way out of despair and is necessary for survival.
So, when hope has been lost, where do we find it? Or when it’s faltering, how can we cultivate it? Psychologists have looked at this extensively and the ideas that surface most often are: 1) renewing a sense of agency — combating feelings of helplessness by reconnecting with what you can do; 2) renewing a sense of possibility — developing the creativity to imagine not only a vision for the future, but also finding multiple approaches or pathways to fulfilling that vision; and 3) renewing a sense of trust or faith — providing that anchor to help us travel down those sometimes difficult paths.
Turning specifically to this week’s practice, this is one that I developed myself in a course I took on positive psychology last year. Our final assignment was to use one of our higher scoring VIA character traits (which I also wrote about here) to address one on which we tend to score lower. My project was to explore whether I could use the basic structure of Seligman et al’s Three Good Things intervention, tweaking its focus, in order to increase my sense of hope by taking the time every day to intentionally find three things that build hope. When I tried it out, within the limited and very non-scientific bounds of course-work, it proved to be beneficial. So, this week, I decided to pull it out of my toolbox and put it to use once again.
What is it?
Every day, write down three things that happened that give you hope and why they make you hopeful. For example, ‘Today, I kept up with my routine of running 7.5 km every other morning. This gives me hope because it counters the script that tells me I don’t have the energy to exercise regularly.’ This, in theory, would help to cultivate hope because it boosts my sense of agency, as well as my sense of faith (in this case, in myself and my body’s resilience and energy).
Some things that may help with the practice include:
- Look for areas where your faith in something has proven well-founded
- Focus on what you have to be grateful for and how this might shape your expectation for the future
- Look for situations where people are working toward your desired future
- Think about your relationships and the people in your life
- Actively look for multiple pathways to achieve your goals
- Look for role models, people who may have solved similar problems to your own
- Think about what you’ve done to further your desired future (This can be very minor; one writer tells a story of how she broke a horrible spell of long-term heartbreak simply by deciding one day to cry while standing on one foot instead of curled up on the couch; even that little step gave her a greater sense of agency that cascaded to the point where she could eventually move on.)
- Look for ways you’ve been kind to others or others have been kind to you
- Think about what your religious faith commitments mean to you.
This was an up and down week, not specifically with the practice itself, but with thinking about hope more generally as I was doing the practice and preparing this post. The practice itself is very manageable and I didn’t find it very challenging to find three things that boosted my sense of hope in small ways every day. And, ultimately, I do think it was helpful in improving my overall sense of hope and wellbeing.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I had a bit of a journey this week in reflecting on hope and the relationship between hope and the practice I was exploring. It actually triggered some deeply personal and uncomfortable reflection in me about my faith in myself, in the human institutions which seem to be wobbling if not collapsing around us, and ultimately in God. This isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting out of a simple little intervention designed to help me cultivate my sense of hope.
Something that the practice helped me remember this week is that hope needs to be scalable. While this practice definitely helped me find hope in the small things in life and this is really important, I was also haunted by the sheer bigness of the challenges that were really driving the wobble in my sense of hopefulness in the first place. When faced with such immense and serious problems as rising xenophobia and authoritarianism and the ever-grimmer prospect of our changing climate (and our society’s lack of resolve to do anything about it), it really is hard to find hope for this world. In this, Christian theology can be both a help and a hindrance. It’s a help because the goodness and providence of a loving God provides a great grounding for our hope; but it can be a hindrance if we’re not careful, because early Christianity — a faith that was if there ever was one tailored explicitly for those with no reason for hope in this world — establishes hope entirely in the eschatological future (aka, the second coming, aka the Kingdom of God, aka eternal life, etc.). For a while this week, I have to admit that I found this troubling. As a Christian, of course, I firmly believe ultimate hope is not in or of this life, but the trouble is that we still need to live this life as well and as fully as we can and this involves working for a better, more just, future, and while our eschatological hope can certainly provide a ballast for this, we really do need some less ethereal, practical hope too.
What I eventually remembered as I was processing this, however, is that while, yes, Christian thought definitely bases its hope in the eschatological future, it also equally maintains that this future is available in the here-and-now. The theological term for this is ‘inaugurated eschatology’; it’s the belief that the End of Time happened in the Midst of Time so so that we have access to that power and that hope already. The Kingdom of God is within us and among us even now. The life of the resurrection in which Christians place our hope, is available in the here and now. Far from punting hope to the future, as I had initially grumbled in my forgetfulness of this earlier in the week, Christianity instead offers hope as a life preserver tethered to a future that is secure and true, beyond anything that might happen here.
This has been a lengthy digression, but it was immensely helpful for me this week as I wrestled with the seeming smallness of my hope as compared to the immensity of the challenges before us.
Drawing this reflection to a close, I have to say that this practice certainly has a place — in a less anxious season in my mind, the practice had a strong positive impact on my perceived hopefulness, and even this week it helped in small ways by helping me find hope in the small victories and blessings in life. At the same time, as a Christian, when the world seems a particularly frightening and hopeless places, ultimately the Three Hopeful Things list will always look like this:
- “For we know that God works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” (Romans 8.28)
- “God is with us.” (Isaiah 8.10)
- “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil. 4.13)
This is the hope we have as an anchor for the soul.