Hackers target 19,000 French websites after extremists rampage leaving 17 dead. Two people are killed as police thwart a terror attack in Belgium. Former Detroit Rotary Club president gets life sentence for arranging the murder of his wife. Twenty Mexican state officials are being investigated for covering up threats and torture of witnesses to alleged extrajudicial killings. These are all stories in my local newspaper today.
It is easy to get depressed about all that is wrong in the world, to feel as though we are doomed. Yet many do indeed remain hopeful that a more peaceful world is possible. Too often, those of us who keep a more sunny outlook are dubbed simplistic or even silly…a bunch of hippies holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Research in psychology and sociology shows, however, that hope is more than naïve optimism. It is perhaps the most important part of actualizing our goals, be they personal or collective.
Scholars argue that hope is the combination of agency and pathways. That is, when we are hopeful, we not only develop appropriate and challenging goals but believe that we have the ability to achieve them despite the challenges that may lie ahead. Hopeful people encounter challenges or difficulties with the belief that better times and things lie ahead. Those with no hope either make no goals, or set goals that are too easy or next-to-impossible to achieve. They then get either bored or dejected and quit.
Further, studies have found that hopeful people earn higher grade point averages, are more likely to graduate from high school and college, and generate more and higher quality ideas in the workplace. Those who remain hopeful rate higher on measures of overall happiness.
Pediatrician Smita Malholtra identified five characteristics of resilient, or hopeful, people. First, they practice mindfulness, which she describes as “the art of paying attention to your life on purpose.” They pay attention not only to what is wrong but also what is right in their lives.
Second, resilient people resist the urge to compare themselves to others, “they are their own measuring stick of success.”
Third, they see every setback as an opportunity for transformation. Instead of devastating us, challenges offer stepping stones for change.
Fourth, resilient people maintain a sense of humor, finding opportunities to laugh even at the mundane, a quality associated with lower blood pressure and increased vascular blood flow.
Finally, do not seek excessive control but rather are willing to go with the flow, adapting as needed.
According to Shane Lopez, Ph.D., author of Hope Matters, hope can be learned. The best way to learn hope is to practice more of those things we are excited about and to surround ourselves with people who are hopeful. People who have experienced great trauma but survived, even thrived, have much to teach others about hope and resilience. As Lopez explains, “Hope has the power to make bad times temporary.” People who have hope have both the ability to respond in negative times but are also initiators, ultimately, they are the people who have the most power to effect change.
Gandhi was hopeful. Martin Luther King Jr. was hopeful. Mother Theresa was hopeful. Indeed, all of the people associated with nonviolent social change have much to teach us about confronting obstacles with a sense of our own agency.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.