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Rainbows in the Mind

December 16, 2019 by John Andrew Williams

C.L. Snyder casts human psychology as a spectrum of strength, just like a rainbow is a spectrum of light.

It’s a continuum of being, with each possible color connected to all the others. Snyder’s hope theory distinguishes hope as first a cognitive, rather than an emotional, process. Emotional patterns result from hope, but thought patterns cause it. This is a really important distinction because we can form habits out of thought patterns. We follow thought pattern habits that affect our emotional states every single day. Imagine how powerful it would be to cultivate thought patterns centered around hope. 

What :

A review of hope. In this 2002 paper, Snyder reviews hope theory’s development to that point. He first outlines his academic process for proposing hope theory in the late 1980s, and provides the following definition: “Hope is a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy), and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals),” (Snyder et al. 1991, p. 287). In other words, hope is the result of goals, agency, and pathways working in concert. They feed off of one another in positive feedback loops. Goals are the mental target of your future achievement. They vary. Your goal could be to make a salad from what you can find in your refrigerator because you are hungry and don’t have time to go to the store. Or your goal could be to start your own tech company, sell it, and retire in ten years. While these are wildly different scenarios in topic and in scope, they share the central tenets of hope theory. Both require motivation to attempt something, and strategic planning to make the attempt. Both require you to be confident in your capacity to motivate and figure out how to complete the task. Snyder adds here that hope also requires that someone have some level of perceived uncertainty about the goal. Pathways are the routes you map to reach your goals. The landscape you map your pathways on is time. Snyder explains that time is a continuum of past, present, and future, and we tend to think about it as a line. To construct a pathway, someone links sequential actions from their present towards their cognitive construction of a future goal. People who are very hopeful tend to be very confident in their pathways, and their pathways tend to be well-articulated. If one pathway doesn’t work, hopeful people can construct another one to reach their goal. On the other hand, people with low hope levels struggle to identify clear pathways. Because the pathways aren’t clear, it is hard to commit to them fully, and if they don’t work it’s easy to throw in the towel. Agency is your perceived ability to follow the pathway towards your goal. Think of it as motivation. Snyder also characterizes it as energetic. It’s the mental energy to articulate a goal, commit to it, and persevere through the challenges you’ll inevitably face along the way. 


Hope theory helps conceptualize the difference between agency and pathways. Agency from a life coaching standpoint looks at your being and learning. Who do you need to be or what do you need to learn to accomplish what you need to accomplish. Agency comes from a latin verb “agere”, which means “to do”. It has the same root as our word agenda. It’s literally, the things that ought to be done, but it’s the being aspect of the action. Whereas pathways look at the action in the environment. 


Snyder first reviews the research on hope theory to date. He revisits the literature on optimism and adds brief reviews of a few more theories:

  1. Self-Efficacy. This theory is specific to situation-oriented goals, rather than hope theory’s emphasis on hope as an overarching attitude. Self-efficacy assumes the goal must be clear and very important. Another important distinction is that in self-efficacy theory a person perceives that they can or cannot carry out the actions required to reach a goal, whereas in hope theory a person perceives that they will or will not. So, hope theory assumes that people are not evaluating their actual capacity to perform goal-oriented objectives, that they know they can do it. The question instead surrounds whether they have the mental willpower to keep at it when it gets difficult, or boring, or something unexpected happens.
  2. Self-Esteem. This theory focuses on the emotions that people feel as a result of their perceptions of how effective they are in navigating their lives. Snyder claims that while this theory doesn’t use “goals” as a terminology, it is inherently goal-oriented.
  3. Problem Solving. This theory is quite similar to hope theory because it emphasizes identifying a goal and a pathway for formulating a solution. However, hope theory places substantial causative energetic power in agency, or motivation, to identify goals and keep working at them. Problem-solving doesn’t cover motivation, although measurement tools that measure hope and problem-solving have correlated closely. 

Snyder then reviews various categories of research studies that have applied hope theory to measure it in various populations of people. 

  1. Academics. Many studies have shown that hope correlates well with high academic achievements for elementary, high school, and college students. One study surveyed 200 students with the hope scale during their first semester as college freshmen, then followed them for 6 years. High hope scale scores aligned with higher graduation rates (Snyder, et al. 1999). Snyder highlights that in the academic context, teachers are a key component and that research should examine how teacher hope scores may correlate with hope in their students.
  2. Athletics. Research has also demonstrated high correlation between hope and athletic performance in high school and college-aged athletes. Curry et al. (1997) looked at hope in college athletes from 7 university Division 1 track teams. The results were very clear: even after the researchers statistically removed the variance in natural athletic ability, high hope athletes performed much better than those with low hope. Hope has also been correlated with more specific goals and fewer thoughts of quitting in young athletes (Brown et al. 1999).
  3. Health. Research has looked at how hope correlates with two types of actions people take to prevent negative impacts to their health. Primary preventative actions maintain a healthy lifestyle and reduce the likelihood of mental or physical illness. Secondary preventative actions attempt to contain and treat problems once they arise. Hope has been shown to correlate with both these types of prevention. Women with high hope were shown to have more concrete intentions to implement cancer-prevention activities into their lives than low hope women (Irving et al. 1998). People with high hope have also been shown to cope better while recovering from serious injuries (Elliot and Kurylo 2000).
  4. Psychological Adjustment. We can think of this one as well-being. Higher hope has been shown to correlate with better adjustment to life’s circumstances, stronger social relationships, stronger ability to cope with stressors and reorient around barriers, and clearer sense of life purpose.
  5. Psychotherapy. Hope theory has been a helpful framework for designing treatments for depression and as a preventative for depression. 

Snyder discusses what makes people lose hope. In children, loss of hope can be related to losing a parent, having parents get divorced, being raised in environments without boundaries or consistency, and having parents’ idea of what they should become forced on them. In adults, losing a loved one, either through death or divorce, is a leading cause for losing hope. Adults often construct their goals along with their partner, and so being left behind can be very disorienting. Losing a job can also lead to hopelessness, as well as living through a traumatic event. He finishes his review discussing whether hope can go too far. Can we construct goals that are illusory and unrealistic, or just plain too big, which keep us from focusing on what is possible in our lives? He examines this question through the lens of hope theory. He cites evidence that high hopers do tend to be optimistic, but they don’t ignore the feedback of reality. Their goals, agency, and pathways are constructed based on those feedbacks. He distinguishes high hope goals from the extreme illusions that people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia suffer from. He suggests that people who set high change goals, like dramatic weight loss, and then sink into depression when they fail aren’t actually high-hope people, but people with low hope. So, these change goals aren’t correlated with high hope goals. He cites research that high hope people who set big goals for themselves are more likely to reach them than low hope people who set low goals for themselves. This is because they are invigorated by the challenges associated with their goals, they adapt to challenges as necessary, and they just don’t give up. 

References: Brown, M., Curry, L. A., Hagstrom, H., & Sandstedt, S. (1999). Female teenage athletes, sport participation, self-esteem, and hope. Paper presented at the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, Banff, Alberta, Canada.Curry, L. A., Snyder, C. R., Cook, D. L., Ruby, B. C., & Rehm, M. (1997). The role of hope in student-athlete academic and sport achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1257–1267.Elliott, T., & Kurylo, M. (2000). Hope over disability: Lessons from one young woman’s triumph. In C. R. Snyder (Ed.), The handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications.Irving, L. M., Snyder, C. R., & Crowson, J. J. Jr. (1998). Hope and the negotiation of cancer facts by college women. Journal of Personality, 66, 195–214.Snyder, C.R. (2002). Hope Theory: Rainbows in the MInd. Psychological Inquiry 13(4): pp. 249-275. Snyder, C. R., Irving, L., & Anderson, J. R. (1991). Hope and health: Measuring the will and the ways. In C. R. Snyder & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Handbook of social and clinical psychology: The health perspective (pp. 285–305). Elmsford, NY: Pergamon.Snyder, C. R., Wiklund, C., & Cheavens, J. (1999). Hope and success in college. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Boston, Massachusetts.

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