In my work as a therapist and clinical social worker I come across the concept of hope frequently. For the last years I worked at an agency in San Francisco serving people who were often homeless, very poor, addictively ill, and who had been confronted with existential obstacles for a long time–sometimes all of their lives. Many of them experienced traumatizing events. From the outside it would seem that hope is not easy to come by when your life path has been one of struggles and disappointments. When I began my work at this agency, I was told that one of my tasks was to give people hope. I felt quite overwhelmed by this mission and spent a lot of time thinking about its elusive nature. And then I began to meet with my clients and realized that hope comes in different shapes, sizes and flavors. Some people seem to be hopeful by nature. No matter how much life tries to beat them down, they keep moving forward and eventually create a situation for themselves that makes them content and hopeful for more. Other people are dealing with severe depression, a condition which is characterized by hopelessness and helplessness, evil twin symptoms that feed into each other. If I feel I cannot effect positive change for myself , I feel hopeless and if I feel hopeless, I don’t believe I have the agency and power to change anything. How to go about supporting people in moving out of this state if the very engine of motivation that makes other folks run high on hope is stalled? And isn’t there good reason to feel hopeless when life and the society around you seem to offer you little support?
Searching for answers to these questions I encountered Positive Psychology. It was once called the psychology of happiness but has since been more comprehensively named the theory of human flourishing. This definition acknowledges that human thriving is not just about positive emotions. We don’t have to feel happy in order to flourish. When I work with clients who are suffering deeply, I usually don’t feel happy, however, being able to be there with them and to work on ways to alleviate the suffering certainly makes me flourish.
In Positive Psychology hope has a vital role. It links it closely to motivation and describes how hope is created in people. There have been findings that hope is connected to active tasks and that it comes about when people believe a goal can be achieved. That may sound very simple and self explanatory, but if you have ever sat with somebody who felt practically paralyzed by hopelessness and helplessness it can be like a revelation. It means that a person does not have to feel hopeful or even motivated in order to move forward. It also means that we can help somebody move into a more hopeful state by gently but persistently doing the detective work of finding out what their goals might be. These can be long term and even span a whole lifetime. Such goals can be linked to meaning making. Goals can also be more short term. Once goals have been stated, active tasks toward these goals can be identified. These tasks can be small achievable steps that build on each other and lead to bigger tasks. I may work with somebody who feels depressed and isolated and who cannot imagine that anybody would ever want to spend time and connect with them. We may then identify the goal of making one friend. Not that big of a deal for some people but for others it can feel like an unachievable feat. And the road toward it may also not be completely straight forward. A first active task toward it might be to make a list of friends somebody made in the course of their lives and find out how these friendships came about. Are any of the friends still in the picture? Can old friends be contacted and can re-connections happen? Somebody may benefit from reading a book about friendship or speaking about things they would like to share with a friend. These steps can then lead to more obvious ones like seeking out opportunities to meet people who share common passions and approach them in ways that can lead to friendship.
Looking back at the nasty co-conspirators hopelessness and helplessness, it makes sense to wonder how somebody can engage in taking action toward a goal (thereby hopefully eventually creating hope in themselves) when they don’t yet feel the hope that motivates them toward action and makes them feel they can help themselves. This is where another finding from Positive Psychology becomes important. Hope is a learned skill. If somebody is surrounded by hopeful people they can learn from them how to be hopeful. That means that the hope I have for somebody as a therapist can be something that can be essential in helping them take active steps and in consequence create their own hope. And how about those naturally hopeful people I meet at work. Well, they make me feel more hopeful, too. Hope is clearly a gift that keeps on giving.