Hope Really Does Float!

September 19, 2009 by  
Filed under health

My husband’s Mom is truly the most optimistic person I’ve ever known. At 93, she has been unable to get out of bed due to her very frail body, but that doesn’t seem to stop her. I phone her often and always ask her how she is. She responds with the same answer in an unusually upbeat tone, “I’m still here!” she rings out. At her recent birthday party, many of us agreed that it’s been her keen sense of optimism that has kept her alive. One friend remembered the phone call she shared with my mother in law a few years ago, immediately after she had lost her home in a fire. “Well,” said my mother in law “don’t you worry. Now you can go ahead and build the home you’ve always wanted!”

I, on the other hand, question whether or not I’m that optimistic. It’s not as though I’m pessimistic, but I’ve grown to be a bit cynical. On the other hand, I really seem to be hopeful. Is that the same thing as being optimistic? Not at all, according to Vaclav Havel. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Much to my surprise, it turns out that the sheer quality of having hope is a very potent weapon. According to Jennifer Cheavens, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, “hope is consistently associated with fewer symptoms of depression. And the good news is that hope is something that can be taught, and can be developed in many of the people who need it.” Hope is different from optimism, which is the expectancy that good things will happen. Instead, hope involves having goals, along with the desire and plan to achieve them.

Cheavens and her colleagues tested a hope therapy treatment by sampling a number of people recruited through flyers and newspaper ads. The ads asked the participants to attend weekly group meetings designed to increase the participants’ abilities to reach goals. Specifically, the researchers looked for people who were not diagnosed with mental illness or depression, but had a level of dissatisfaction with their lives. In the study, half the participants took part in group sessions led by trained leaders. Here they were taught hope-related skills, like identifying goals and ways to achieve them, along with how to motivate themselves to do so. The results, published in the journal Social Indicators Research, illustrated that the participants in the hope therapy had fewer depressive symptoms compared to the control group that didn’t participate.

“We’re finding that people can learn to be more hopeful. We have been figuring out what hopeful people are doing right, and taking those lessons and developing therapies and interventions for people who are not doing as well. And the great news is that it seems to work. We can teach people how to be more hopeful.”

The methodology used focused on developing a blueprint for goals, and using positive motivators to keep the goals in check. (Positive motivators can be anything from self-help talk with yourself, a friend or a source.) Not a bad piece of information to share, especially to folks like me who don’t always have the gut feeling that the glass is half full. With hope and a road map to get there, I plan on crafting a way to maintain a hopeful attitude which keeps my level of motivation in full gear.

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