When Kelly James-Enger and her husband decided to adopt after years of infertility, the process was urprisingly smooth. But when they started trying to
adopt a second child 18 months after they brought home their
son, “everything that could go wrong did,” James-Enger says. In
three years they suffered the heartbreak of five failed matches,
including one in which they met their would-be baby before his
mother changed her mind about placing him for adoption.
Despite the grief and the repeated disappointments, James-
Enger never lost sight of her goal. “Hope was the only thing that
kept me in the game,” she says.
Hope is associated with many positive outcomes, including
greater happiness, better academic achievement and even
lowered risk of death. It’s a necessary ingredient for getting
through tough times, of course, but also for meeting everyday
goals. Everyone benefits from having hope — and psychologists’
research suggests almost anyone can be taught to be more
“Hope doesn’t relate to IQ or to income,” says psychologist
The pathways are how we get there — the routes and plans that
Shane Lopez, PhD, a senior scientist at Gallup and author of
the 2013 book “Making Hope Happen.” “Hope is an equal
What precisely is hope? Most psychologists who study
the feeling favor the definition developed by the late Charles
R. Snyder, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kansas
and a pioneer of hope research. His model of hope has three
components: goals, agency and pathways. Put simply, agency
is our ability to shape our lives — the belief that we can make
things happen, and the motivation to reach a desired outcome.
allow us to achieve the goal, whether that’s adopting a child,
finding a better job, surviving a hurricane or just losing a few
Unsurprisingly, optimism and hope are closely related. Even
during the darkest days of her adoption struggle, the ever-optimistic James-Enger never stopped being hopeful. “I’m
definitely a glass-half-full type — maybe even three-quarters
full,” she says. That optimism paid off, and after three years she
finally brought home her baby daughter. However, says Lopez,
“optimism is only half of hope.” While optimism is a general
feeling that good things will happen, hope tends to be focused
on specific goals.
Hopefulness is also distinct from wishing. “Wishing is
ubiquitous, but it can be kind of an escape from reality. Hope
is different because it has to do with facing reality,” says Jon
G. Allen, PhD, a senior staff psychologist at The Menninger
Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in Houston. “As I see it, hope is
motivation to stay in the game.”
A big part of that motivation, he believes, comes from
relationships with other people. Time and again, in his work
with clinic patients, he’s seen how important social support is
to having hope. “The antithesis of hope is feeling invisible and
psychologically alone,” he says.
Randolph C. Arnau, PhD, a psychologist at the University
of Southern Mississippi, agrees. While Snyder’s hope model
has wide support, Arnau says he favors another measure of
hope developed by nurse researcher Kaye Herth, dean emerita
of Minnesota State University, Mankato. Like Snyder’s, Herth’s
measure emphasizes setting goals and working toward them.
But her model also contains a social support factor. “You have
people you can depend on and people that are meaningful in
your life,” Arnau explains. He believes social connections are
fundamental to hopefulness.
Hope, health and happiness
Having hope feels good, but it’s also good for you. Arnau and
colleagues have reported that hopeful people have a greater
sense that life is meaningful (International Journal of Existential
Psychology & Psychotherapy, 2010). Meanwhile Lopez and
Matthew Gallagher, PhD, a psychologist at Boston University,
found that hope is a strong predictor of positive emotions
(Journal of Positive Psychology, 2009). Their research shows that
hope and optimism are distinct from one another, but both are
important for happiness and well-being, says Lopez, who has
studied hope in millions of people through his work with the
Gallup polls. While hopefulness alone doesn’t make a person
happy, he says, it’s a necessary step on the path to contentment.
“You have to knock down the hope domino to get to the
happiness domino,” he says.
On the other side of that equation, Arnau and his colleagues
have looked at hope’s connection to depression and anxiety.
They surveyed more than 500 college students on measures of
hope, depression and anxiety, then repeated the survey months
later. They found students who expressed higher hope at the
beginning of the study had lower measures of depression and
anxiety one and two months later. The reverse was not true,
however — symptoms of anxiety and depression had no effect
on future levels of hope (Journal of Personality, 2007).
Having faith in your future may also make you more likely
to succeed. John Maltby, PhD, a psychologist at Leicester
University, and colleagues tracked college students over three
years and found the more hopeful students went on to greater