January is in the books.
Most people, however, would still consider this the “new year.” Yet, most people have likely already broken one or more of their New Year’s resolutions.
The good news, though, is that even if many people fail at maintaining them over time, New Year’s resolutions have still been shown to be quite successful for helping people resolve problem behaviors without professional treatment.
One study showed that 77 percent of resolvers maintained their behavioral commitments for one week, 55 percent for one month, and 40 percent for six months.
So, what causes the unsuccessful resolvers to derail, while so many others can persist and see their resolutions through?
True hope versus false hope
There are several factors that contribute to resolution failure, but the one that relates most to the topic of this post is wishful thinking.
Unsuccessful resolvers are significantly more likely to indulge in wishful thinking than successful resolvers.
When we engage in wishful thinking, we imagine the fulfillment of a desired outcome without any rational regard for required effort or potential obstacles.
This contrasts with genuine hope, which is the belief that our desired outcome can be achieved, and that we have the power to achieve it.
The contrast between hope and wishful thinking is similar to the contrast between process focus and outcome focus.
Hopeful people focus on process. They expect things to turn out for the best, but they expect to give the required effort and they expect to encounter obstacles. Wishful thinkers simply expect things to turn out for the best. They focus only on the outcome.
True hope acknowledges our personal power, while wishful thinking surrenders it to forces beyond our control.
Where true hope is grounded in reality, false hope is the result of distorting reality.
Wishful thinking, then, is a form of false hope.
Wishful thinkers don’t take responsibility for their own capacity to realize their goal. Their attachment to outcome is fanciful and undisciplined. They are far too reliant on the notion that external powers will act in their best interest. They passively await their envisioned reward instead of constructively pursuing their goal. They expose themselves to material and psychological loss when their desired outcome doesn’t materialize. Because they don’t plan or prepare for the obstacles they will face, wishful thinkers do not tolerate frustration well, they don’t easily rebound from setbacks, and they are prone to despair.
Hope consists of a desire coupled with a belief about the probability of fulfilling that desire. False hope results from an unrealistic desire, an unjustified belief about the real likelihood of fulfilling a desire, or from an overestimation of the true value of the object of our desire.
Most New Year’s resolutions tend to be related to goals like weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation, alcohol intake reduction, increased productivity, or other self-change efforts.
Researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman proposed four primary sources of self-change attempt failure, each a type of false hope:
- The belief that people can change more about themselves than is likely.
- The belief that change will happen more quickly than is possible.
- The belief that change will come more easily than is probable.
- The belief that a specific change will improve their life more than should be reasonably expected.
We often fail at our initial attempts at meaningful self-improvement. Or at our first attempts at anything, really.
But if we pay attention to the above four false hopes, we will realize that often all we need to do to succeed is to revise our expectation, our goal, or both.
Hope and optimism are related but not redundant
Just as it is important that we distinguish true hope from false hope, we must also distinguish hope from the related positive psychological construct of optimism.
Both optimism and hope reflect the extent to which we believe in a more prosperous future for ourselves. But optimism is a more general belief in a successful outcome, and hope is more focused on the self-initiated actions we can take to create a more successful future for ourselves.
So, while hope and optimism are related, they are distinct rather than redundant.
Hope and optimism are both important for positive mental health. Optimism focuses on more general positive outcome expectancies, without much emphasis on how the goal is achieved. Hope focuses more on personal agency, and considers strategies for goal attainment. Optimally, we will maintain high levels of both hope and optimism. This allows us to keep positive expectancies regardless of how much control we have over the outcome.
Hope keeps us positively focused when we have significant influence over the process that leads to our goal, optimism keeps us positively focused when we have a lower level of direct control.
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Hopefulness is good, hopelessness is very bad
Mark Manson posits that hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression, and is the primary source of misery and addiction. He admits this is an overstatement, but there is research to suggest he is not that far off.
Indeed, even a quick glance at existing psychological literature correlates hopelessness to:
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of inspiration
- Feeling helpless or powerless
- Feeling alienated or isolated
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal thoughts and suicide
Conversely, a similar quick literature review finds that hopefulness is correlated to:
- Enhanced performance
- Improved physical health
- Improved psychological health
- Stronger interpersonal relationships
- Heightened self-esteem
- Reduced stress
- Reduced anxiety
- Enhanced goal formulation, pursuit, and attainment
- Elevated life satisfaction
- Increased motivation
And those are both short lists of just a few examples of the negative effects of hopelessness and the positive effects of hopefulness.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”
Hopeful people are happier, healthier, and more productive than those with low levels of hope. But what are the essential components of hope? And how can we condition ourselves to be more hopeful?
Hope theory: Goals, pathways, and agency
Renowned positive psychologist Rick Snyder defined hope as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and to employ agency thinking to motivate oneself to use those pathways.
Goals are the cognitive component that anchor Snyder’s hope theory. Goals are the target of a mental action sequence, which may or not be visual. Goals may be short or long-term, but they should be valuable enough to sustain our attention. Goals may also be positive (approach goals) or negative (avoidance goals), and may have a high or low probability of being achieved.
Shane J. Lopez was a student of Rick Snyder’s, and his book Making Hope Happen expands on Snyder’s hope theory and offers some strategies for applying Snyder’s theory to our own lives.
Lopez suggests several goal creation tips:
- We tend to commit the most resources – and we realize the greatest gains – on goals that we are excited about pursuing.
- Clear, specific goals energize us more than vague, fuzzy ones.
- Positive (approach) goals energize us more than negative (avoidance) goals. A goal should add to your life rather than subtract from it.
- Highly suitable goals will align with our strengths.
- Choose goals that you think will make a big impact on yourself or others.
So, highly hopeful people tend to set specific, positive goals that they are excited about, that align with their strengths, and that make a big impact.
Lopez also offers some strategies to help bring goals to life. In particular, he recommends various futurecasting techniques such as visualization, consulting experienced guides, and actively contrasting your present with your envisioned future.
Pathways are how we link our present to our desired future state. These pathways should be usable routes to goal attainment. Ideally, pathways thinking will produce a plausible route in which we have a high level of confidence. But beyond this, we should also produce several plausible alternate routes. We should also consider possible obstacles, and remain open to choosing alternate paths accordingly.
Shane Lopez reminds us that there are many paths to goals, and that none of them are free of obstacles. The ability to anticipate obstacles and create multiple pathways to each goal is a key skill of hopeful people.
He also explains that a surplus of pathways can help us to more quickly escape a bad situation, or to better tolerate a situation that becomes inescapable.
Additionally, Lopez describes a guided imagery exercise that had been used in a pain management experiment. The following more general prompts from this experiment can be an effective pathway generating exercise:
- Think about the steps involved in reaching your goal.
- Think about the different strategies you have for reaching your goal.
- Rehearse what you will need to do during the pursuit of your goal to be successful in reaching it.
- Anticipate the problems you might have in reaching your goal.
- Consider the alternatives you can use to overcome these problems.
The five prompts above provide a simple framework for mentally simulating our goal achievement process, anticipating impediments, and generating alternate pathways to success.
Agency refers to our perceived ability to follow our pathways to reach our desired goals. Agency gives us the motivation to get started, the persistence to continue down our chosen path, and the resilience to bounce back when we are occasionally stymied by obstacles. And if an obstacle proves insurmountable, agency motivates us to pursue an alternate path to our goal rather than just giving up.
Lopez suggests putting agency on autopilot by creating situations where it is easier to make the right choice, and by setting up automatic systems that activate when we are otherwise too tired, busy, or distracted to stay focused on goal pursuit.
One way to do this is by using cues and defaults.
- Cues are signals we can use to activate simple if-then plans that free up a lot of mental space and energy. They are the basis of our good habits, and hopeful people become adept at using them in their favor.
- Defaults allow us to preselect a step toward our goal that will activate automatically unless we take an intentional action to stop or change it.
Lopez also discusses some specific types of action triggers:
- We can create a goal contagion by associating with people who share our goals (propinquity). This will give us an automatic boost in focus and motivation, and we can infect others with the excitement we have about our own goal pursuits, as well. Making our commitments public can also trigger goal contagion.
- We can precommit ourselves to strategies that help us maintain progress toward our goals. These are sometimes known as “Ulysses pacts” or “Odysseus contracts” and these, too, can be strengthened by making our goals public and binding.
- We can use when/where plans as prompts to start long-term projects. Simply choose the exact date and time you will start working on it, and the place where you will work. These plans keep us on track and help us avoid procrastinating.
- We can also use defensive action triggers that serve as alarms that tell us when our environment is suboptimal or when our support system is failing. This allows us to pause our goal pursuit until we can address these obstacles or choose an alternate pathway.
The easier we can make it to stick to our path and avoid distractions, the higher the probability of goal achievement. Cues, defaults, and action triggers are some of the methods we can employ to make sure we move forward and stay the course.
Four core beliefs
Lastly, there are four core beliefs that hopeful people share and that we can adopt if we want to become more hopeful:
- The future will be better than the present.
- I have the power to make it so.
- There are many paths to my goals.
- None of them is free of obstacles.
The above four beliefs will help us become more hopeful as well as more process focused.
If we adopt those four beliefs and avoid the four main types of false hope that can derail us, we will have done most of the cognitive heavy lifting needed to build a more hopeful mindset.
Combine that with using strategies that allow us to set better goals, choose more effective paths to our goals, and increase our personal agency, and we will be on our way to having a more hopeful year (and life).