Hope may be the last thing you are feeling right now, and you may have ambivalent feelings heading into the new year. You want 2021 to be better than 2020; you try to think positively, but you don’t believe it. Recovery from current challenges, and all of the challenges of the past year, seems like a monumental task. Worse, it seems like we are collectively suffering from an epidemic of public despair.
Obviously, there are major external factors we cannot control right now, but there are internal ones we can. Hope offers us the opportunity to change our ‘inner landscape’, which can profoundly change the way we approach the outside world.
For many, the concept of hope feels like a disdained ideal or just wishful thinking; a vague construct or lofty belief that has no use in everyday life. Worse, it may only exacerbate the divide between your current circumstance, or feelings of despair, and what you wish were true. You may feel that the practice of hope basically asks you to put your faith in something you don’t believe or think you can achieve, so what good is it?
The above is an inaccurate interpretation of hope. Definitions of hope often include a feeling that ‘things are going to be OK’, empowered confidence, or a sense of security in the possibilities of a brighter tomorrow – it is frequently described as a state of being. Hope is more than a process of achieving goals, it is something you feel and experience.
Research shows that real hope can reduce feelings of hopelessness and despair and make you more resilient, optimistic, and have a better sense of the future. Hope is not merely wishful thinking; instead, it is a feeling of confidence that things can be different. And this is a confidence you can cultivate—even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.
Different avenues of research shed light on how this is possible. The earlier psychological studies on hope showed some particular processes for the effective development of hope. They were identified as developing ‘agency and pathways’ – or ‘willpower and waypower.’ Basically, this means a belief that you have what it takes to promote change and have some idea of how to ‘get there’ – a good vision and goals were often cited as crucial components.
Although goals and a vision can be vitally important, if your dominant emotional experience is one of disbelief or lack of confidence, it will override any real hope development.
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Looking through the lens of neuroscience, we see an additional and necessary dimension. Because hope is not a cognitive process but a state of being, an inner experience or confidence that ‘things will be OK,’ intentionally cultivating that inner experience is crucial. Your mind/body complex offers a blueprint for how this is possible. If you understand how your emotional life is created and facilitated in your mind and body, i.e. what you feel, or your state of being, you can begin to change your inner experience around hope.
The field of neuroscience shows us that we create a greater capacity for the emotional states we routinely experience. Every moment of every day, your mind/body complex receives a psycho-physiological imprint of what you are authentically feeling. Because humans are ‘systems of adaptation, this mind/body complex that makes you, you – your beliefs, behaviors, etc. – will adapt to this imprint. In other words, the more you experience any feeling, the greater capacity you develop to live from that outlook.
Suppose you’re trying to think positively but don’t believe it; your mind/body complex molds to the disbelief. Neuroscience demonstrates that to change your capacity for any emotional outlook, you need to experience that outlook – even if it’s in small ways. Then, the system that makes you “you” adapts to the new outlook shifts, creating a greater capacity to live from that outlook over time. Simply, to build a greater capacity for hope, you must exercise your ‘hope muscles.’
But how do you do that? Again, you mold to your authentic experience, so denying, pretending, or suppressing doesn’t work. The key is to adopt practices and behaviors that genuinely shift your belief system and sense of emotional experience to one of hope, as your belief systems function largely like the rest of your mind/body complex. You need to ‘exercise’ them to gain fitness in those areas and start small enough to feel an authentic shift.
Starting small and feeling an authentic shift is much more effective, from a neuroscientific standpoint, than trying to make yourself think something on a grand scale that you don’t believe or feels forced. Focusing on past times you have felt a similar experience, or gaining clarity on what something would ‘look’ and ‘feel’ like if it were working – and then genuinely feeling that confidence – strengthens your neural networks and biochemical processes for hope to be productive.
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Think back on times when you made it through adversity and focus on the feeling of success. Write about the event(s) in detail if it helps stimulate your inner experience. Focus on what you CAN change and journal about your strengths that might contribute to that change. Be clear about what you DO want in a situation instead of only focusing on what you don’t want. Recall, and feel your past accomplishments, even if it is as simple as learning to tie your shoes. It is the emotional experience that creates the capacity for more of the same. You are, essentially, remodeling the capability of your neural nets to experience hopeful feelings.
In the world of neuroscience, little shifts, consistently over time, can lead to big changes in emotional capacities. The critical piece is to stimulate smaller, authentic experiences of hope and build from there. It is also important to check yourself for the ‘yeah, but….’ In other words, if you are going to a place of emotional doubt or disbelief, shift your focus to a smaller, authentic experience and build from there. If you wanted to run a marathon but had never run before, you wouldn’t start with 26.2 miles. You would start with getting off the couch and walking around the block. Training your emotional capacities respond in the same way.
Lastly, you see the world through the current lens of your presenting emotional state. When your psycho-physiological systems are calm and grounded, as they are when you are experiencing genuine hope, you see possibility and opportunity instead of fear and restriction. Hope, as a state of being, helps provide the personal resources to realize your own agency and see your possible pathways. Hope begets more of the same, and ‘willpower’ and ‘waypower’ become more accessible.
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This article is the first in a series on finding hope in 2021. Each can stand alone, or, taken together can offer a more in-depth exploration of hope as we head into the new year.
In the upcoming articles in this “Finding Hope in 2021” series, we will explore specific strategies for changing your experience around hope.