Expert Commentary

Hope: A research-based explainer

Hope is complex, but as we embark on a challenging year of news, it’s important for journalists to learn about it. We’ve gathered several studies below to help you think more deeply about hope and recognize its role in our everyday lives.

scrabble spelling of hope on a world map
(Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash)

This year, more than 60 countries, representing more than 4 billion people, will hold major elections. News headlines already are reporting that voters are hanging on to hope. When things get tough or don’t go our way, we’re told to hang on to hope. HOPE was the only word printed on President Barack Obama’s iconic campaign poster in 2008.

Research on hope has flourished only in recent decades. There’s now a growing recognition that hope has a role in physical, social, and mental health outcomes, including promoting resilience. As we embark on a challenging year of news, it’s important for journalists to learn about hope.

So what is hope? And what does the research say about it?

Merriam-Webster defines hope as a “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” This definition highlights the two basic dimensions of hope: a desire and a belief in the possibility of attaining that desire.

Hope is not Pollyannaish optimism, writes psychologist Everett Worthington in a 2020 article for The Conversation. “Instead, hope is a motivation to persevere toward a goal or end state, even if we’re skeptical that a positive outcome is likely.”

There are several scientific theories about hope.

One of the first, and most well-known, theories on hope was introduced in 1991 by American psychologist Charles R. Snyder.

In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Snyder defined hope as a cognitive trait centered on the pursuit of goals and built on two components: a sense of agency in achieving a goal, and a perceived ability to create pathways to achieve that goal. He defined hope as something individualistic.

Snyder also introduced the Hope Scale, which continues to be used today, as a way to measure hope. He suggested that some people have higher levels of hope than others and there seem to be benefits to being more hopeful.

“For example, we would expect that higher as compared with lower hope people are more likely to have a healthy lifestyle, to avoid life crises, and to cope better with stressors when they are encountered,” they write.

Others have suggested broader definitions.

In 1992, Kaye Herth, a professor of nursing and a scholar on hope, defined hope as “a multidimensional dynamic life force characterized by a confident yet uncertain expectation of achieving good, which to the hoping person, is realistically possible and personally significant.” Herth also developed the Herth Hope Index, which is used in various settings, including clinical practice and research.

More recently, others have offered an even broader definition of hope.

Anthony Scioli, a clinical psychologist and author of several books on hope, defines hope “as an emotion with spiritual dimensions,” in a 2023 review published in Current Opinion in Psychology. “Hope is best viewed as an ameliorating emotion, designed to fill the liminal space between need and reality.”

Hope is also nuanced.

“Our hopes may be active or passive, patient or critical, private or collective, grounded in the evidence or resolute in spite of it, socially conservative or socially transformative,” writes Darren Webb in a 2007 study published in History of the Human Sciences. “We all hope, but we experience this most human of all mental feelings in a variety of modes.”

To be sure, a few studies have shown that hope can have negative outcomes in certain populations and situations. For example, one study highlighted in the research roundup below finds that Black college students who had higher levels of hope experienced more stress due to racial discrimination compared with Black students who had lower levels of hope.

Today, hope is one of the most well-studied constructs within the field of positive psychology, according to the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, which dedicated its August 2023 issue to the subject. (Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on characters and behaviors that allow people to flourish.)

We’ve gathered several studies below to help you think more deeply about hope and recognize its role in your everyday lives.

Research roundup

The Role of Hope in Subsequent Health and Well-Being For Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach
Katelyn N.G. Long, et al. Global Epidemiology, November 2020.

The study: To explore the potential public health implications of hope, researchers examine the relationship between hope and physical, behavioral and psychosocial outcomes in 12,998 older adults in the U.S. with a mean age of 66.

Researchers note that most investigations on hope have focused on psychological and social well-being outcomes and less attention has been paid to its impact on physical and behavioral health, particularly among older adults.

The findings: Results show a positive association between an increased sense of hope and a variety of behavioral and psychosocial outcomes, such as fewer sleep problems, more physical activity, optimism and satisfaction with life. However, there wasn’t a clear association between hope and all physical health outcomes. For instance, hope was associated with a reduced number of chronic conditions, but not with stroke, diabetes and hypertension.

The takeaway: “The later stages of life are often defined by loss: the loss of health, loved ones, social support networks, independence, and (eventually) loss of life itself,” the authors write. “Our results suggest that standard public health promotion activities, which often focus solely on physical health, might be expanded to include a wider range of factors that may lead to gains in hope. For example, alongside community-based health and nutrition programs aimed at reducing chronic conditions like hypertension, programs that help strengthen marital relations (e.g., closeness with a spouse), provide opportunities to volunteer, help lower anxiety, or increase connection with friends may potentially increase levels of hope, which in turn, may improve levels of health and well-being in a variety of domains.”

Associated Factors of Hope in Cancer Patients During Treatment: A Systematic Literature Review
Corine Nierop-van Baalen, Maria Grypdonck, Ann van Hecke and Sofie Verhaeghe. Journal of Advanced Nursing, March 2020.

The study: The authors review 33 studies, written in English or Dutch and published in the past decade, on the relationship between hope and the quality of life and well-being of patients with cancer. Studies have shown that many cancer patients respond to their diagnosis by nurturing hope, while many health professionals feel uneasy when patients’ hopes go far beyond their prognosis, the authors write.

The findings: Quality of life, social support and spiritual well-being were positively associated with hope, as measured with various scales. Whereas symptoms, psychological distress and depression had a negative association with hope. Hope didn’t seem to be affected by the type or stage of cancer or the patient’s demographics.

The takeaway: “Hope seems to be a process that is determined by a person’s inner being rather than influenced from the outside,” the authors write. “These factors are typically given meaning by the patients themselves. Social support, for example, is not about how many patients experience support, but that this support has real meaning for them.”

Characterizing Hope: An Interdisciplinary Overview of the Characteristics of Hope
Emma Pleeging, Job van Exel and Martijn Burger. Applied Research in Quality of Life, September 2021.

The study: This systematic review provides an overview of the concept of hope based on 66 academic papers in ten academic fields, including economics and business studies, environmental studies, health studies, history, humanities, philosophy, political science, psychology, social science, theology and youth studies, resulting in seven themes and 41 sub-themes.

The findings: The authors boil down their findings to seven components: internal and external sources, the individual and social experience of hope, internal and external effects, and the object of hope, which can be “just about anything we can imagine,” the authors write.

The takeaway: “An important implication of these results lies in the way hope is measured in applied and scientific research,” researchers write. “When measuring hope or developing instruments to measure it, researchers could be well-advised to take note of the broader understanding of the topic, to prevent that important characteristics might be overlooked.”

Revisiting the Paradox of Hope: The Role of Discrimination Among First-Year Black College Students
Ryon C. McDermott, et al. Journal of Counseling Psychology, March 2020.

The study: Researchers examine the moderating effects of hope on the association between experiencing racial discrimination, stress and academic well-being among 203 first-year U.S. Black college students. They build on a small body of evidence that suggests high levels of hope might have a negative effect on Black college students who experience racial discrimination.

The authors use data gathered as part of an annual paper-and-pencil survey of first-year college students at a university on the Gulf Coast, which the study doesn’t identify.

The findings: Researchers find that Black students who had higher levels of hope experienced more stress due to racial discrimination compared with students who had lower levels of hope. On the other hand, Black students with low levels of hope may be less likely to experience stress when they encounter discrimination.

Meanwhile, Black students who had high levels of hope were more successful in academic integration — which researchers define as satisfaction with and integration into the academic aspects of college life — despite facing discrimination. But low levels of hope had a negative impact on students’ academic well-being.

“The present study found evidence that a core construct in positive psychology, hope, may not always protect Black students from experiencing the psychological sting of discrimination, but it was still beneficial to their academic well-being,” the authors write.

The takeaway: “Our findings also highlight an urgent need to reduce discrimination on college campuses,” the researchers write. “Reducing discrimination could help Black students (and other racial minorities) avoid additional stress, as well as help them realize the full psychological and academic benefits of having high levels of hope.”

Additional reading

Hope Across Cultural Groups Lisa M. Edwards and Kat McConnell. Current Opinion in Psychology, February 2023.

The Psychology of Hope: A Diagnostic and Prescriptive Account Anthony Scioli. “Historical and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Hope,” July 2020.

Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind C.R. Snyder. Psychological Inquiry, 2002

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