All positive change begins with hope. Without hope, our future can appear bleak and meaningless. We all know what it feels like to be hopeful. We’ve felt the surge of energy that comes when we wish and plan for a brighter future. Many of us have fallen into a state of hopelessness as well, feeling steamrolled when our plans get derailed. No one is hopeful every moment of every day, but everyone has the propensity to adopt a more hopeful stance. This is because hope actually runs on a spectrum. Hope isn’t something we either have or we don’t have, and it is actually possible to grow hope. Since hope is directly related to our sense of possibility, the greater our perception of possibilities, the greater our hope.

Hope is not the same as happiness or optimism. It is what we feel when we think that life is worth living, that our work is worth doing. Hope instills, within us, a positive relationship with our existence. It is the deepest of the three emotions. Happiness and optimism cannot exist without hope, but hope can exist without happiness or optimism. Hope answers the question, “Why bother?”

Every week in Mental Health Monday, you’ll find research-based and faith filled opportunities for life change, but unless we have a bit of HOPE that things actually can change, the information can appear useless.  Hope is what moves theory into action and it allows us to personalize life change and shift our mindset from “Well, maybe that worked for THEM” to “I believe this could work for ME.” 

The faith world talks a lot about hope as well.   In Ephesians 1:18, Paul prays that “The eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people.” Jesus Himself is referred to as Our Living Hope. And in Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Truly, the very nature of the Christian faith is centered in hope.

The Hopeful Brain

Not surprisingly, God created our minds to be hopeful. In a fascinating discovery about the nature of brain development and life change, researchers identified the most hopeful finding of modern psychology when they discovered that the actual structure of our brains are made to change and adapt.  This concept of our brain’s malleability, a term labeled neuroplasticity, means that not only can we develop hope when it was once not there, but we can actually GROW even the smallest shred of hope into something measurable that can change the course of our future.

Since hope runs along a spectrum, you may wonder: “How do you build hope where there seems to be none?” and secondarily, “How do you grow hope that is small?” Let’s start by identifying what happens when we don’t have hope. In the clinical world, we measure depressive symptoms by considering a few core indicators, including helplessness and hopelessness.  If a client walks in and says they feel helpless, hopeless and have lost pleasure in the things they once enjoyed, those are all red flags for further screening for depression.  Interestingly enough, helplessness and hopelessness are actually quite connected.  When we feel helpless (or stuck), hopelessness isn’t far behind. When psychologists help clients move toward hope from a thought-change approach (what we call CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy), we focus on the areas where clients have adopted a mindset of helplessness and work with them to identify their strengths that could be useful to effectuate change in the particular area where they feel helpless.

 If they can’t identify any current strengths, we pull from past strengths.  If they can’t identify those, we may ask about what someone who believes in them would say their strengths are.  If there’s no social support at all, we start at the beginning: the fact that they are in the counseling room at that moment means they have the strength to make a change in their lives. Reading this article today is evidence that you have an existing shred of hope that can be built, expanded upon and increased.

Role of Therapy and Mirror Neurons

The role of a therapist, in many ways, is to hold hope for the client until they can hold it for themselves.  It is one of my deepest honors to ask a client for their permission to allow me to hold hope for them until they can hold it for themselves. When you’ve been let down so many times, having hope about much of anything feels a bit… dangerous. An attuned therapist can enter into that world of hopelessness and remind a client, “You’re not alone.”

Our brains were created to build hope internally but they were also made to hold hope for others. One way this happens is through mirror neurons. These fascinating neurons in the brain modulate their activity both when an individual executes a specific motor act and when they simply observe the same or similar act performed by another individual. Hence the mirror. It’s much like if you are in a conversation and you lean in and speak in a softer, more gentle tone, and the person with you mirrors it. When we are able to hold hope for another person, their mirror neurons can pick up on the state of our nervous system. We call this co-regulation. This is also how emotional regulation is learned: a child begins to cry after falling down and the parent scoops them up and calmly soothes them. Over time, the child mirrors this behavior and is able to soothe themselves. Healthy relationships can be powerful catalysts for the development of growth, hope and peace in our lives.

Trait Optimism

Researchers studying hope have most recently zeroed in on a topic called “trait optimism”. In essence, trait optimism is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the trait of being optimistic. “Trait optimism” is a clinical word for “hope”.  It reflects the tendency to expect positive outcomes in the future. Consistent evidence has demonstrated that having this trait of optimism has a clear effect of reducing anxiety among many different populations. More than a few researchers have taken brain imaging scans and found that those who tend to live in this hopeful state have increased gray matter volume (GMV) in the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), a finding that is correlated with decreased anxiety.  In simple terms, hopeful people’s brains are cushioned against anxiety on a structural level. Hope creates some neurochemical states that shield the brain from some negative effects of the neurotransmitters produced by anxiety and helps regulate behavior.

Implementing Hope

So practically and behaviorally, how do we implement these findings? Where does hope start and how do we begin to discover a more hopeful journey for ourselves and the people we love?

Hope starts with psychological flexibility and the courage to consider this: “What if my perspective is limited?  What if the future I’m imagining is not the only option?”  Choosing hope is the ultimate act of both humility and courage: humility to consider that your perspective may be limited and courage to consider a more hopeful alternative.

If you’re reading this and you feel like things will never change for you because maybe you’ve tried before — and it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped– or you believe there are too many factors stacked against you, I invite you to take a very tiny risk with me.  I invite you to entertain the possibility, even for a moment, that there’s more to your situation than you can see. Allow for alternate endings in the hopeless story you’ve told yourself. You don’t have to know what that alternate ending is YET, just that it’s possible.

Here’s why this is important:   When you do that, you actually begin a new neural pathway in your brain.  Even if it feels forced at first and your skepticism quickly comes up with 5 reasons you’re foolish for hoping, you’ve taken the first step toward a new, hopeful path in your brain and in your life. The more times you entertain that hope-filled possibility, the stronger that pathway will grow until you actually start to believe it wholeheartedly. Building a hopeful life starts with taking the risk to open yourself up to new possibility and making space for hope to grow.