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Nourishing Hope for 2021 and Beyond

2020 was a turbulent year. As we open a new calendar, we have a natural inclination to view this alteration in the date as an opportunity for a fresh start.  Somehow, the advancement of one number in the marker of time we call a year makes it easier to place certain events behind us and look forward with hope and anticipation of positive change in the circumstances of our lives.

How you approach this fresh start can make a significant difference in the course of the year ahead, and every year after that.  If you are the type of person to wish for better things and then sit back and wait for them, the train is going to come and go, leaving you behind on the platform.   

Instead of wishing, a much more effective approach is to be in possession of hope. Merriam- Webster defines hope as “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.”  Hope is the driving force in our lives which propels us forward despite what may be happening around us.

Let’s differentiate between hope and optimism.   Optimism, which is a generally positive outlook about a person, situation, or life in general, is an attribute which people possess in varying degrees. The presence of optimism strengthens hope, but it is not necessary to view the world with rose-colored glasses in order to possess hope.  Going back to the simple example of a train, the optimistic person waits on the platform believing that the train will arrive.

Hope, on the other hand, is more than just a personality trait. This confident expectation that something we desire is within our reach spurs us to take action.  It is what motivates a person to step onto the train when it arrives and continue his/her journey.

 A popular explanation of the concept of hope was developed by the late psychologist Charles R. Snyder, PhD.  His extensive research on hope led him to identify three elements of hope:  goals, agency, and pathways.  Goals are achievements or outcomes that we desire to obtain.  Agency is our belief that we can take action to influence the course of our lives, and pathways are the methods we use to obtain our desired outcomes.

Considering these three elements, I believe that hope begins with agency.  If an individual doesn’t believe that he or she has any control over what happens in life, then goals will not be seriously contemplated. The individual will move through time wishing for certain things but never developing a plan to achieve those dreams. A dream will only become a goal when a strategy is formed and steps are taken to move in the desired direction.

Hope does not exist in isolation.  An individual’s capacity to hope is not determined by circumstances such as social status, income, or intelligence as some people may believe.  Psychologist Shane Lopez, PhD, author of the 2013 book Making Hope Happen describes hope as “an equal opportunity resource.” Hope is something which is available to everyone and can be cultivated.

Two factors which can influence an individual’s ability to hope are realism and resilience.  Approaching life in a realistic or practical manner prevents an individual from continuously setting goals which may be too high.  When these unreachable goals are unable to be attained, or the steps to achieve them are extraordinarily difficult, the repeated lack of progress may feel defeating and the individual may become less hopeful. A realistic approach which results in even occasional small gains keeps energy levels higher and hope for the desired outcome alive.

The second influential factor, resilience, is the ability to adapt to and learn from difficult circumstances.   Resilience involves the processing of uncomfortable emotions in order to find a path forward.  It is important to recognize that hope can co-exist with the negative emotions which occur during and after discouraging or traumatic events, and that resilience is a trait which is not static.  Similar to hope, it can be nourished and strengthened to help individuals live their best lives.

If hope provides our motivation to live life, as a society we must be aware of attitudes which threaten the existence of hope.  In the United States, the undercurrent of ageism which exists in our culture is as dangerous to hope as is racism and other forms of discrimination.  While specific segments of our population are usually the targets of discrimination, ageism impacts everyone.  We are all aging, and we all have loved ones who are growing older right alongside of us. 

The later stages of life are frequently viewed as periods of physical and mental decline. This negative perspective squashes our agency – that sense of control over life which we possess, and therefore discourages the setting of goals for this period of time.

What are your hopes for 2021 and beyond?  The challenges of 2020 have highlighted the importance of hope on both a daily and long-term basis.  If your hope could use a bit of a boost right now, check in next week for some tips on how to nourish and grow this essential defense to those stressors which threaten our present well-being and our entire future older selves.

Karen Kaslow, RN, BSN