Hope is the Key to Resilience. How to Have “Smart Hope” When Times are Tough

“Hope doesn’t relate to IQ or to income. . .Hope is an equal opportunity resource." - psychologist Shane Lopez, PhD

Let’s face it, life is hard and finding hope is tough. Many of us feel overwhelmed by the enormity and uncertainty of our current situation. Having hopes and dreams for the future might feel too difficult and too risky, like you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

And yet.

The Benefits of Hope

Having hope is so good for us that we need to find ways to feel hopeful even when life is hard. Hope heals and motivates us. It improves physical health and encourages positive action which prevents a spiral into despair and even depression. Because of its positive benefits, having hope is a critical form of self-care. And like all emotions, hope is also contagious; your ability to feel hopeful may well inspire someone else to feel hopeful as well.

“Hope is associated with many positive outcomes, including greater happiness, better academic achievement and even lowered risk of death. It's a necessary ingredient for getting through tough times,” says the American Psychological Association.

Flower grows through sidewalk

Hope is sometimes a defining factor between those who wither and those who thrive in a crisis. Army Air Forces Sergeant Lloyd Ponder, a former prisoner of war, says his ability to maintain hope throughout his captivity gave him the determination to survive. “Hope makes a difference,” says Ponder. “If you don’t have hope, you’re gone. Having hope can get you through anything.”

Hope is also a critical factor in recovery for those suffering from life-threatening diseases. Jerome Groopman, M.D., author of Anatomy of Hope, says “hope gives us the courage to confront our circumstances and the capacity to surmount them. For all my patients, hope, true hope, has proved as important as any medication I might prescribe or any procedure I might perform.”

I know from personal experience how important hope is in times of crisis. When I went through a tough divorce twenty years ago, I held on to the idea that my future would be better. This hope inspired me to take up a new musical instrument, pursue graduate school and start dating again. Though things seemed impossibly bleak at the time, hope kept me focused on the idea that there were better days ahead.

White brick with 'Stubborn on Vision Flexible on Details' written on it

Hope is realistic

Hope that truly helps us isn’t blind to reality, however. Experts say it’s necessary to have realistic hopes - and a realistic plan to achieve them. Groopman describes this as “clear-eyed hope” that “acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.”

Psychologist Jon G. Allen, PhD agrees. "Wishing is ubiquitous, but it can be kind of an escape from reality. Hope is different because it has to do with facing reality.”

So, how can you have realistic hopes during these tough times?

First, experts say, keep your sense of hope flexible. Work to maintain a sense of optimism that has some positive expectations of the future without being tied to specific outcomes. “Hope is merely the belief that there is the potential for something good to happen. . . hope is not tied to a particular outcome,” says one source. It’s fine to have a specific plan for the future, but it’s important to recognize that the plan might not work out. Be open to seeing and accepting positive changes different than those you imagined.

Second, be realistic about your hopes. Especially during COVID when so much is uncertain and out of our control, be pragmatic when imagining the future. For example, it’s probably not wise to plan a European vacation given the ongoing pandemic, an uncertain economy, and travel restrictions. But renting a cabin a few hours away for a week could provide a much-needed respite. A big Thanksgiving get-together with family on the opposite coast may not be realistic these days, but looking forward to a smaller gathering with friends and family closer to home is a smarter and more flexible plan.

Person reading in bed in a cabin in the woods

Third, I recommend that you get to know your “disappointment capacity”. Your disappointment capacity is how much you’re likely to suffer if something you hope for doesn’t work out. If you know a big disappointment will likely wreak emotional havoc for you, modify your hopes accordingly and dream and plan more modestly.

Unfortunately, our “go big or go home” culture often makes us feel like small hopes aren’t worth the effort. But small hopes are the key to helping us get through the next several months (year?) in better mental and emotional shape. All of us are looking for those little moments of hope and joy to help carry us through these times. And remember: knowing and accepting your own limits indicates a high level of self-awareness. This in turn makes you better able to regulate your emotional energy wisely during this time - a critical self-care skill.

If you do decide to make a specific plan, I recommend you plan a “soft landing” to help you manage disappointment should the plan not work out. In case Plan A doesn’t happen, have a back-up plan B - a desirable consolation prize - that will mitigate the disappointment.

Picture of lit scented candles, rose and plush towels

If the fun family outing you really looked forward to is a bust or the event you were so looking forward to gets cancelled, acknowledge your disappointment and be especially nice to yourself. Schedule a few hours of self-care or distraction: Spend an afternoon at a lovely garden or watching your favorite show. Buy yourself a special treat. Splurge on some good take-out and a nice bottle of wine, or schedule a virtual happy hour with friends.

Remember that your disappointment doesn't make you weak, it makes you human. Don't try to ignore it; acknowledge and move through it with kindness and self-compassion. This is they key to resilience, and resilience is an important survival skill.

A critical aspect of balanced self-care when life is hard is encouraging yourself to hope and plan for the future while also having your own back should you face disappointment. Allowing yourself to hope will help you navigate this time of crisis more effectively.

At the same time, caring for yourself in the face of some inevitable disappointment will help you maintain hope in the future. And keeping hope alive and well is one of the nicest things you can do for your present and future self.