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What is Hope Theory?

September 03, 2021 by Coach Training EDU

Helping your client understand that hope is more than just wishful thinking, but a tool that can be used to positively impact outcomes in your life is where Hope Theory meets life coaching. We find Hope Theory so critical that we actually rooted our entire life coaching approach in it. Hope isn’t something that happens to you; it’s something that can be sought out, harnessed, and used for good. It emphasizes your ability to make a change in your own life, which is the essence of life coaching.

Hope is often described as a strong feeling of desire toward a particular outcome. Hope is embedded in our daily lives, from small wishes (I hope we’re having pizza for dinner tonight) to much more consequential situations (I hope I get this job). Many psychologists consider hope to be one of the most consequential emotions when it comes to well-being and life satisfaction. Hopelessness, on the other hand, is usually associated with deep sadness and even despair.

For as significant as hope is to humanity, many people have difficulty pinpointing what it means to experience hope. Where does hope come from? Is it truly just a feeling? What exactly is the divide between hopefulness and hopelessness?

Psychologists since the 20th century have worked to answer some of these questions by analyzing how thought, emotion, and hope are related. Perhaps the most prominent voice in characterizing hope is American psychologist C.R. Snyder, who developed what we now call “Hope Theory.”

Snyder’s Hope Theory

Though hope is often culturally considered a feeling, Snyder proposed that hope is more of a “positive motivational state” resulting from a cognitive process. He theorizes that if people can think in a way that generates many plausible and actionable pathways toward achieving their goals, they can be hopeful.

There are three main components in Snyder’s Hope Theory:

Goals: defined as “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.” Goals are transformative in anchoring and directing hope.

Pathways: indicates that a person is able to generate plausible routes toward achieving their goals. This also includes having a plan for managing and overcoming any obstacles that show up on these pathways. Having multiple pathways can make a goal seem more attainable.

Agency: determines whether a person thinks they can actually use their pathways to achieve their goals. In short, agency means “you can do it.” Building the motivation necessary to work toward your goals can be difficult or impossible without a sense of self-belief and trust in your pathways.

Snyder’s Hope Theory suggests that thought processes are the crux of hope. People with high hope often have multiple pathways toward their goals and the agency necessary to build motivation, while those with low hope typically do not.

Thought versus Emotion in Hope

Since the typical cultural understanding of hope is rooted in emotion, it can be strange to think of hope as a cognitive process. However, it’s important to recognize that thought and emotion aren’t mutually exclusive in Hope Theory. On the contrary, they often interact with and influence one another.

In Snyder’s model of hope, cognition brings out emotion. Individuals who are able to generate realistic ways to reach their goals are more likely to feel optimistic, energetic, and maybe even happy. On the flip side, those who can’t come up with plausible ways to reach their goals may begin to feel pessimistic, gloomy, or frustrated.

These emotions can, in turn, impact your thought process. Feelings of optimism, energy, or motivation can spur creativity and lead to bolder ideas. Meanwhile, feelings of frustration, exhaustion, or despair can shut down your thought process and make it more challenging to come up with new ideas.

Though Snyder suggests that hope begins as a cognitive process, his theory does not refute the significance of emotions in hope. Rather, he acknowledges that emotions are an important part of being able to problem-solve and build motivation.

Why Does Understanding Hope Matter?

Many people recognize the significant benefits of hopefulness; positive emotions and increased motivation can make goals more attainable. However, hope has also been linked to greater levels of psychological well-being that can extend well beyond immediate situations.

Research suggests that hopefulness can provide people with a sense of purpose and autonomy, leading to a higher level of life satisfaction. Hope has also been shown to protect people from stress during difficult situations. For example, one study showed that hope could actually help shield students from the psychological stress of bullying, while another study indicated that hope in victims of Hurricane Katrina was linked to fewer PTSD symptoms.

These long-term benefits of hope exceed the instant reward of positive emotions and goal achievement. Understanding what hope is and how it works can help individuals alter their thought processes to increase their immediate motivation while also building the tools they need to grow their overall contentment and gratification in life.

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