A meditation on what Hope means in these hard times – and how to cultivate it

Hope in hard times – what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and what helps to cultivate it

In these times we all know that no one of us has a monopoly on struggle and feelings of loss, fear, uncertainty and pessimism. Many of us are being forced to find hope in order to keep on keeping on through the ruins of deep trauma caused by colossal disruption and uncertainties, both structural, in our lives and the way we are having to live them, and temporal, how we have been forced to think about the future.

As well as what this means for us in our here-and-now, Hope is a future-oriented energy, and many of us are finding the impossibility of being able to predict or plan with any modicum of certainty is shutting down our capacity to lift our minds out to imagine with any enthusiasm any likely future.  There are just too many if’s, but’s and maybe’s – and this must be especially savage for people who are unable to do what they do in any form at the moment.

And yet we know, too, that our future, and probably even our survival, depends upon us being able to manufacture enough hope each day to get up and do what we need to do, solve what we have to solve, and to live, love and laugh as much as we possibly can in the doing of it.

Like everyone on the planet at the moment, I am having to find ways to live inside our universally shared experience of COVID, trying to learn to overcome bigotries, and the emergencies of climate change that are forcibly prescribing what we do and how we relate with each other in more ways than at any other time in our lives.

And for me personally, within this, I am living through the recent death of my husband, Martyn Duffy, the love of my life, my co-director through work and life and the person who made me possible.

Like so many, hope for me at the moment is not a nice idea but an absolute necessity.

So when I recently retook my VIA Character Strengths survey to see what I might most easily and advantageously lean towards to help me continue to stay possible, and even, at some future time, learn to flourish again, I was greatly strengthened to find I had significantly increased my Hope score to draw it up into my top signature set of strengths – those qualities that I was giving greatest value and energy to. 

You can find out your own VIA Character Strength preferences by taking the free online survey at: https://www.viacharacter.org

Values in Action Character Strengths definition of Hope

Drawn and developed from Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s original taxonomy, VIA define Hope as ‘expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it; believing that a good future is something that can be brought about’.

I know from my studies that Hope, as a character strength, is an action-oriented strength that involves our will or motivation. Its importance is that, despite adversity, challenges, and negatives, with hope we are also able to see the positive and the good, giving us the way to bring a hopeful perspective that is based in a solid, realistic foundation. 

Hope is highly connected with wellbeing and the relationship between hope and zest is the strongest of any two character strengths. Where zest is an application of positivity to the present, hope has its application to the future. Hope is also related to the warmth-based strengths of gratitude and love and the achievement-oriented strengths of perseverance and perspective. 

So for me to uncover that, at this time, along with my pre-existing top strengths that I was grateful to see are still in my signature widowed portrait, it is Hope that I am intuitively reaching for to help me.

But I know, too, that having Hope or any strength in your signature doesn’t automatically give you everything you need to use it fully and to its best advantage. 

And while hope is a very powerful forward- looking strength, when it is overused it becomes unrealistic and is no longer based on actions that are achievable. It becomes an “it will all work out in the end” wish rather than a grounded view of the future and how to get there. 

This overamplified version of hope is what I grieve at hearing too much in the rhetoric and policy decisions of our political leaders at the moment, an almost messianic determination and demand to us to stay upbeat and positive despite any evidence to justify this and causing a seemingly completely empty drawer of contingency plans.

There is a virus that is killing thousands of us, but it will all be okay if you just trust in each other’s common sense.

The planet is dying but it’ll all come right in time if we just stay positive and recycle our shopping bags.

Human beings are killing other human beings for no reason except what they look like, but we’ll learn to stop doing this if we just let people be themselves.

We have to use Hope skilfully, calibrating and tempering it for the realities of our situations. In particular, we have to use our judgment to evaluate where we really are now, and our curiosity to seek out and explore realistic future possibilities.  Judgment gives Hope rationality and logic, while Curiosity keeps Hope alive and active, helping to keep our Hope anchored and strong. 

A VIA exercise to build and cultivate hope as a strength

Take a moment to think about the upcoming year and imagine your best possible self coming forward. Imagine that you are engaging in activities that are pleasing you and working towards goals that are important to you. Once you have a clear image write out the details, what you see, hear, feel, maybe even smell and taste. Consider and describe how you can use your different character strengths to get there. And then find one thing, however small, you can do today to move towards the future you visualised.

Writing about your best possible self helps to create a logical structure for the future and can help you move from the realm of stuck uncertainties and anxieties to concrete, real possibilities that you want and feel able to try and make happen. 

Hopefully strong people tend to be realistic optimists — they have the hopefulness of optimists and the clarity of pessimists — which gives them both the motivation and the critical thinking required to come up with creative solutions.

Armed forces people are now trained, as part of their resilience preparation for going into traumatic situations, to first think out three possible scenarios that could happen. It doesn’t matter so much what these are, or even how bad they are. The active energy required by our brains to simultaneously hold three different outcomes automatically increases our sense of agency over the situation and thus our hopefulness about it. It has the additional benefit of freeing us from toxic ‘this’ versus ‘that’ binary thinking that is stalling so much of our public conversations at the moment.

“Every time realistic optimists face an issue or a challenge or a problem, they won’t say ‘I have no choice and this is the only thing I can do’.  They will be creative, they will have a plan A, plan B and plan C” Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way, tells us.  These are his eight recommendations for cultivating optimism:

  1. Develop a morning routine
  2. Become more intentional
  3. Surround yourself with positive people
  4. Decrease or even avoid negative conversation, news or gossip
  5. Focus on the journey and progress you’re making, however small, rather than the destination
  6. Practice gratitude – for example, use a Gratitude Journal, or try Maria Sirois’ technique of, just before going to sleep, asking yourself “what was my best moment today?”
  7. Assume the best in others
  8. Practice skilled hopefulness every day

Skilled Hope as a resilience capability

Stephen Southwark & Dennis Charney looked deeply at what some of the most resilient people did, including prisoners of war and civilian survivors trauma including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to successfully navigate through extreme difficulty and ultimately influence a better outcome. 

They, too, define optimism as ‘belief in a brighter future’ and identify Realistic Optimism as the first of their ten resilience capabilities, defined as ‘maintaining a realistic and optimistic outlook’. 

Optimism serves as fuel that ignites resilience and provides energy to power all of the other resilience factors. It facilitates an active and creative approach to coping with stressful situations.

Optimism is a future-oriented attitude, involving hope and confidence that things will turn out well. Optimists believe that the future will be bright, that good things will happen to them, and that, with enough hard work, they will succeed. Pessimists, in contrast, see the future as dark and determined. They believe that bad things will happen to them and doubt that they have the skills and stamina to make much difference. 

BUT blind optimism doesn’t work 

Realistic optimists pay close attention to negative information that is relevant to the problems they face. However, unlike pessimists, they do not remain focused on the negative. They tend to disengage rapidly from problems that appear to be unsolvable. That is, they know when to cut their losses and turn their attention to problems that they believe that they can solve. We are reminded here of Stephen Covey’s three circles of influence (Direct, Indirect and No Controls), also expressed in the Serenity Prayer: Give me the strength to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to kn ow the difference.

Ways to become more optimistic 

Cultivating optimism involves learning a set of cognitive skills that are part of what Martin Seligman has termed ‘learned optimism.’ Social scientists and cognitive behaviourists describe two basic approaches for learning and enhancing optimism: increasing positive thinking; and refuting negative thinking. With practice we can teach ourselves to think or insert positive thoughts. We can also teach ourselves not to dwell on negative thoughts. To do this we must learn to distinguish negative thoughts and then to challenge their accuracy. 

Counteract negative beliefs

In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman recommends responding to negative thoughts “as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable.” Sometimes it is helpful to ask yourself specific questions in order to refute negative beliefs. These may include: 

  • What is the evidence for this negative belief? 
  • Is there a less destructive way to look at this belief?
  • What are the implications of this belief? 
  • Am I catastrophising or exaggerating the potential negative impact of the situation? 
  • Am I over-generalising, falsely assuming that this particular situation has broad implications? 
  • How useful is my pessimistic approach to the problem at hand? 

In his practical guide, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor offers us these questions to challenge and dispute our limiting negative self-beliefs to foster a greater sense of grounded hope for what he calls ‘Falling Up’

  • What assumptions am I making about my situation?
  • How do I know what I think I know?
  • What else might be true about my situation?
  • What would I ideally like to be saying about my situation?
  • What is the simplest most helpful thing I could say about my situation?
  • What is the funniest thing about my situation?
  • If I were advising someone else facing this same situation, what would I say to help them to progress things?

What’s the status of your Psychological Capital?

Psychological capital is composed of four key “psychological resources” that we access to cope with the challenges of our work and lives and can be remembered through the acronym: HERO

Hope here is a belief in the ability to persevere toward goals and find the methods or paths to reach them.

Efficacy is the confidence that you can successfully achieve desired or intended outcomes (etymologically from the early 16th century Latin efficere meaning ’ability to accomplish’)

Resilience here is the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks, adversity or failure.

And Optimism here is defined as a generally positive view of things and the potential of being successful.

In a 2007 research project Fred Luthans from the Gallup Leadership Institute and his collaborators carried out two studies to analyse how hope, resilience, optimism, and efficacy individually and as a composite higher-order factor predicted work performance and satisfaction.  Their results indicated a significant positive relationship regarding the composite of these four facets to performance and satisfaction. and that the composite factor from exercising all four seemed to be a better predictor of increased performance and satisfaction than any individual facets. 

Self-care is the number one resilience practice at the moment because we’re in a marathon. 

Clinical psychologist, Maria Sirois draws her practice from years working with families and children facing terminal illness and her own experience of loss. Much of the following text are her words drawn and adapted from two of her recent presentations with the VIA Institute of Character Strengths and Action for Happiness, both referenced below.

“In these times”, Maria Sirois tells us, “self-care is not an option, it’s mandatory.”

We each have to understand and exercise whatever nourishes us, strengthens us, and inspires us.  These questions drive our self-care.

Begin from the place you are at and, each day ask…

  • What could nourish me today/ right now? and/or
  • What could strengthen me right now? and/or
  • What could inspire me right now?

Choose one of these – it’s not necessary to consider all three every day.  And perhaps link this reflection to an everyday ritual like brushing your teeth.

Hope and Zest are both essential

One way of seeing the journey of transformation is as a smile – with the bottom being where we are between what is no longer and what is not yet true.

Hope and courage in the form of Zest are both essential to help us to move up from the bottom.  We need to face reality as it is and make the choice to consciously deliberately move to make things a little bit better somehow.

Hope, to be helpful, has to be grounded in realistic optimism – the ability to face reality and then choose a thought, an action, a practice that takes us to a slightly better place. 

Hope is not a delusional fantasy that everything is just going to work out fine. It’s a very embodied understanding that we can co-create with life every day.  So if you see yourself at the bottom of the smile looking up at the better future, hope by itself is not enough. We need some energy to make the climb and that’s where zest comes in.  Zest is enthusiasm, bringing your whole heart to the moment, and lives under courage. And in the bringing of our heart is the capacity to stay brave. 

The importance of acceptance and meaning

Acceptance is step one foundation for resilience. 

Resilient people take in what’s happening – the data as well as what they’re feeling – and then they make healthier choices about what to do. 

Meaning in the harshest moments doesn’t emerge immediately. Some meaning can come from finding the meaning in the everyday, but the bigger meaning needs time to emerge, and so we may not know the meaning of what’s happening for many months or even years, but we can invest in the smaller meanings every day to keep us going and hopeful. 

We can also bring our creativity to reframe and shift our perspective on what is happening, opening us up to more hopeful feelings, as UK poet, Tomos Roberts, has done to inhabit the dark and the light and take action to cultivate hope in what has become a viral YouTube exchange of his performance of his poem: The Great Realisation

Ways to cultivate Zest

Zest is a driver for the personal leadership we need to build resilient capacity. We can do this if you think of Zest as bringing your whole heart to something more than as excitement or jubilation and look to do this even for five minutes a day: perhaps how you wake your children or how you make and eat your breakfast or how you start a conversation with someone… When we do this, this greater energy imprints into your whole day with a shimmer of greater energy and your experience of your day, which mitigates, for example, the sense of COVID fatigue we’re all feeling. It’s a way we can each authentically step into the moment and shape it each day, whatever else we are having to do and deal with.

Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Take the next step…

This is my mantra for the really tough moments, and chimes with what Maria Sirois tells us: “In the worst moments the game has to be step by step, moment by moment, and breath by breath.”

Even when we have no control over so much, we have control over the one thing we always have control over, which is how we show up: who we are and how we respond and what we choose to bring to the day. 

Hope is cultivated through action.

Reminding us of the negative thinking traps that lie waiting in all our brains, Maria Sirois asks us: in the last five months have you ever…

  • Jumped to a conclusion?
  • Taken something personally?
  • Catastrophised?

These are the three most common negative thinking we do, and we each have different magnetic pulls around them. However resilient people stay hopeful by doing their best to challenge and shift these thoughts, knowing that in hard times they can quickly escalate and lock us down.

Maria Sirois’ fix to overcome negative thinking traps – use the genius of the AND

  1. Name out loud the negative thought
  2. Write ‘and’
  3. Write statements that are positive and true to us

I’m not doing enough and every day I’m doing my best and I am chipping away and making progress and I believe my intentions are good 

This brings our mind to a more flexible and more hopeful place that remains grounded in our tough realities. 

Track what you love

To help keep ourselves going, look for stories that exemplify what we want and care about. When we give attention to the things we love, our vitality naturally increases and our sense of connectiveness increases. And that enables us to have more hope. 

Even in the darkest moments there are also moments of real happiness. I know personally at the moment that, even in the terrible loss I am feeling without my husband, I am still able to choose and find moments of real joy from the fresh flowers I keep treating myself to and the delicious food I keep challenging myself to cook and the moments I make myself stop and give my whole attention to and the extra care I am giving to noticing and appreciating the many things that are good in my life.

We can continue to cultivate this capability by learning to soften our gaze to find the good, perhaps tucked out of sight behind the noise of the hard and difficult.  “I’m bored and anxious and exhausted and I don’t know it’s going to be any better two or three months from now.”  

This is Maria Sirois’ gratitude technique for rewiring our brains to filter and find more of the real positives we have: just before going to sleep ask yourself “what was my best moment today?

And we can take what Theresa Amabile tells us about noticing the small gains and progress we have made, however tiny.  This helps us to feel we are moving forward, not so stuck.  And this increases our sense of agency, our self-efficacy, which, in turn, increases our strength of hope.

And to help someone who is suffering, Maria Sirois says the best we can do is to be with them wholeheartedly and then to ask: “Do you want me to sit with you in the swamp or do you want me to try and help you build a bridge out of it? What can I do that’s best for you?”

Lastly, even though no mindfulness expert, I have learned from my intermittent practice that any mindfulness exercise always gives me something good. Here is the one from the VIA United in Strengths webinar…

Maria Sirois’ mindfulness exercise for cultivating Hope and Zest 

from Meta – loving kindness 

Place your hand on your heart and repeat this four-phrase cycle three times, using ‘I’ the first time, then ‘you’, then ‘we’ (people we know right out to the whole world). Give a little more (5%) energy each to each new cycle

May I, you, we 

…be happy 

…be healthy 

…ride the wave of my/your/our life

…find peace no matter what 

References:

United in Strengths: Maria Sirois on Optimizing Hope & Zest, VIAStrengths, 11 May 2020

Happiness in Dark Times – with Maria Sirois, Action for Happiness, 30 July 2020

The Great Resilience, Tomos Roberts, September 2020 – book and YouTube performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4

VIA Institute of Character Strengths –  free questionnaire and resources at https://www.viacharacter.org and webinar recordings on their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/VIAStrengths

Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, Steven M. Southwick & Dennis S. Charney, 2012

Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor, 2010 (cf. also his TEDTalk)

Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, 2002

The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holliday, 2014