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Hope springs eternal

Hope is one of those strange concepts that, when spoken about, elicits a wide spectrum of reactions. Some see the idea of 'hope' as almost delusional - detached in some way from reality, and leading those who put their energy into it away from 'real' life - while some see hope as the very foundation of real life. As for me, I see hope as utterly integral to the adventure of life: without hope - without the belief that, no matter how good this moment is, the best is yet to come - there is no point to the adventure at all.

And that's why I love this quote from Lewis B Smedes: "Hope is to our spirits what oxygen is to our lungs. Lose hope and you die. They may not bury you for a while, but without hope you are dead inside. The only way to face the future is to fly straight into it on the wings of hope... hope is the energy of the soul. Hope is the power of tomorrow.". For me, that quote perfectly captures the essence, and function, of hope.

I also love this quote from renowned Hope Researcher, Charles Snyder: "A rainbow is a prism that sends shards of multicoloured light in various directions. It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible. Hope is the same: a personal rainbow of the mind." To me, that implies that hope is an essential element of unleashing not just your potential, but your true self. Without hope, your true self doesn't stand a chance, and your potential will be forever shackled.

So, hope seems to be pretty important, but how, exactly, does it work?

Good question. And Charles Snyder (who I quoted earlier) has gone some way to answering it. Snyder and his colleagues suggested that hope was a positive way of processing information that was focused on pursuing goals, and a belief that those goals would be achieved. For these researchers, rather than a concept of hope focused on a sense of 'being', with their emphasis on goal directed thinking and behaviour, they put forward a model of hope that was focused on doing.

Snyder developed that idea into what has become known as 'Hope Theory', which suggests there are three quite discreet, yet related, parts to hope: goals thinking (a clear idea on the goals you want to achieve); pathways thinking (coming up with ways - 'pathways' - to achieve those goals); and agency thinking (basically using what came out of your 'pathways thinking' to actually pursue those goals).

So, if Snyder is right in his assessment of hope (and there is plenty of criticism of his theory, so it's far from cut and dried), then hope flows out of having something to aim for, a strategy to achieve it, and the capacity to actually put that strategy into practice.

Now, valid criticism of the theory notwithstanding, I quite like that idea, and it's why, for approaching twenty years, I have been so focused on defining who I really am, figuring out what it will take to become that person, and pursuing the adventure into the real me and my best self.

You see, by having that clear picture of who I truly am, an understanding of what needs to happen for the real me to step out of the shadows; and the belief that, while I may never become the whole of that person, I can get a hell of a lot closer to them than I am right now, I have an unquenchable hope that there is always a point to pushing forward, always a reason to keep pursuing my dream, always a reason to go deeper into my adventure. And, no matter what challenges I face along the way (and there have been many), that certainty that the best is still yet to come - that hope that I have of a better future - sustains me in the face of adversity.

But does hope really matter? Can't I just settle for the way things are?

Well, of course you could settle for the way things are - that's always an option. But evidence suggests that may not be a good option. You see, hope really does matter.

A wide range of studies have highlighted the benefit of having an outlook that is grounded in hope. For example, one study found that academic and athletic performance, physical and mental well-being, levels of self-esteem and the quality of relationships were all improved in people who exhibited a hopeful outlook for the future. These findings were backed up in another study that suggested that when you expect to achieve your goals (in other words, you have high levels of hope), you experience well-being.

In other studies, hope was found to help people re-frame situations, so that stress becomes something that raises a challenge rather than being something that is threatening; and, in so doing, reduce anxiety and help manage levels of overall stress.

The bottom line seems to be that hope is a facilitator to human flourishing - to you becoming the best that you can be. And, if that is indeed the case (and my own personal, first-hand, experience suggests to me that it is), then you need to build, and protect, an orientation toward a hope-filled outlook to life. But how do you do that?

Start with giving your self something to aim for.

Setting goals takes time, care and consideration. And, for those goals to be worthwhile, and truly build your hope levels, they need to be meaningful - sit within the context of achieving the life that you really want. So, rather than going straight to the 'goals thinking' pathway put forward in the Hope Theory, let's take a step back and think bigger.

This week, ring-fence ten minutes every day to sit and work on defining your 'perfect day' - the 24-hour period, which, if you got to live it, would be completely and utterly as you would wish it to be. Each day, use your ten minutes to address a different aspect of that perfect day, as follows:

(1) Where are you? What are your surroundings? Describe in detail the scenery, sights, sounds and smells of where you are.

(2) Who are you with? In your perfect day, who gets to hang out with you? Are they people you already know, or are they new relationships?

(3) What work are you doing? How are you applying your skills in purposeful ways on your perfect day?

(4) What leisure pursuits are you engaged in?

(5) What are you thinking about? What is the focus of your attention in the quiet moments in your perfect day?

(6) How do you feel? Describe your emotions as you savour this day you always dreamed of.

Then, on day seven, bring it all together and tell the story of your day in its entirety. As you re-read it, start to pick out elements of that day that you can set goals to work towards achieving - steps that will bring you closer to maybe, one day, enjoying at least elements of that day for real.

If you want a quick idea of how this works (and no, yours doesn't have to be that detailed - I've worked on mine over a long period of time), you can see my perfect day right here:

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