The power of hope and how to harness it

On a bad day, it’s easy to feel things are hopeless. Dr Denise Quinlan shows how to flip the switch and focus on the good.

Hope is beloved by poets and scientists alike. Scientists define hope as ‘agency’ and ‘pathways’ thinking – in other words it’s made up of two things, the will power (motivation) and the way power (strategies and self-belief) to get to where or what we want. Believing we can do something and seeing ways by which we might get there is the essence of hope.

But what of those moments when we feel hope-less? How can we reignite the spark and rekindle hope when we lack it? Sometimes it feels like the pilot light has been turned off and it’s so darn hard to get the whole fire going again.

Poet Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers”, but on a bad day, when I’ve slipped so far under the surface, it might take a penguin to reach me. Strategies for those days need to be brief and easy. For some people, it helps to start with acknowledgement and compassion, maybe challenging our own negative thoughts, and then moving on to finding gratitude and even a little hope. Try these and see what works best for you.

Acknowledge it

We all have bad moments. Notice it and name it. A journalist friend of mine once told me, “On a good day I can phone the Pope for a quote. On a bad day I can’t even phone my mother.” Dial back your expectations for this moment. Go a little old school and remind yourself, “This too shall pass.”

Practise self-compassion

Researcher Kristin Neff’s self-compassion break (selfcompassion.org) begins with a comforting touch – hug yourself, hold your heart area, or cup your face in your hands (remember, we’re mammals and respond to soothing touch). At the heart of self-compassion is remembering we all have moments of suffering – it’s part of life and you are far from alone. Sometimes just this acknowledgement can ease the pain. The next step is to be kind to yourself in this moment. When you’re feeling low, compassion is more helpful than self-flagellation or a recital of your deficiencies.

Notice and label your thoughts

On days when negative thoughts and feelings abound, notice and label them. The act of labelling gives you some distance from your thoughts. Labels that downplay how big something feels or

that make you smile are helpful too. For example, when I feel ‘raging bull furious’, I label it ‘a bit peeved’. Or when I’m a nine out of 10 on the catastrophe scale, I label it ‘a twinge of upset’. My colleague Dr Lucy Hone likes to say she’s ‘a tad vexed’. The gap between my feeling and the ridiculous label can make me grin. And then I’ve moved a little bit further from that experience.

Ask yourself ‘What are you grateful for?’ On a tough day it might be two legs, two arms… and moving out from there.

It might be that I’m not in a war zone or fleeing danger right now. It can be as simple as a hot cup of tea, sun in the sky, a dog to pat, or a smile from a stranger. Notice and accept the good in your life.

Ask yourself ‘What are you hoping for today?’

Do this even when you’re not feeling hopeful. The hope might be very, very, small – delivered by a penguin with fishy, oily feathers. But listen and pay attention.

The act of asking and listening is important. We’re creating space for hope to arise, however small. It might be ‘I hope I get dressed’ rather than ‘I hope I run a half marathon’. This strategy is sometimes used with patients who have received terminal diagnoses. They report that it reminds them of what matters to them, gives them a sense of control over the future, and helps them move forward.

Hope is strongly related to wellbeing and resilience, hopelessness related to depression. Keeping our hopes small, realistic and manageable helps us get through less-good days so we can soar and rise to greater things in the future.

Related stories