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Mental Health

8 Proven Ways to Unleash the Power of Hopefulness and Spark More Joy

Experts share simple secrets to reframing setbacks, restoring confidence and reclaiming self-belief

When life throws us a curveball, it’s more than tempting to give up — it’s downright human. But research proves we can overcome setbacks, with renewed confidence in our abilities. All we need to do is tap the power of hopefulness.

Hopefulness differs from its cousin optimism in a powerful and surprising way that sets it apart from other positive emotions, reveals researcher Chan Hellman, PhD, coauthor of Hope Rising: How the Science of Hope Can Change Your Life. “While optimism is the belief that the future will be better than today, hope goes one important step further. It’s the belief that tomorrow will be better than today and you have the power to make it so.”

Indeed, far from passive, hope is propulsive, helping us not only envision a brighter tomorrow but bring it into existence with our own intentions and actions. “At the center of hope is our ability to set goals,” says Dr. Hellman. “Proven to be one of the best predictors of our ability to thrive in life and recover from the biggest setbacks, including trauma and illness, hope can be learned.” And the first step to harnessing it is simply knowing that you don’t have to be born wearing “hope-colored glasses” because you can shift your mindset and invite it into your life one small moment at a time.

Rather than a sudden wash of light illuminating our path, hope often starts with a glimmer, observes pastor Max Lucado, revealing that one of the most inspiring examples of how to kindle this positive mindset comes from a general he met years ago who survived nearly eight years in a POW camp. “He told me there was drainage ditch where he could see a single blade of grass — that became what he called his ‘transfusion of hope’ and every day he’d look at it.”

While this is an extreme case, it captures the universal truth of how hope starts small and grows exponentially, adds Denise Larsen, PhD, director of Hope Studies Central — the only research center devoted to the study of hope in everyday life — at the University of Alberta. “[In our research] we ask people to find the smallest thing that sparks hope — be it a flower in your garden or a picture of your grandchild. This is where hope begins because it gets us thinking about a future we want to participate in and help shape.” Keep reading for simple ways to move past the obstacles holding you back and open the door to a brighter, happier future.

1. Release any add-on blame

When we find ourselves in choppy waters, struggling to stay afloat, it helps to make sure we’re not making things even more difficult by “adding on” distorted, negative thoughts, advises mindfulness expert Sharon Salzberg, a meditation pioneer and author, most recently, of Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World. “Notice when you’re thinking things, like, ‘I’m the only one going through this,’ or ‘This is all my fault.’”

Salzberg explains such thoughts add to our sense of isolation and make us feel like our setback is permanent. “Instead, come back to what’s actually happening right now by taking a few deep breaths and asking yourself what you feel in your body,” she advises. Experiencing the moment, without tacking on self-blame or judgmental beliefs, helps us maintain a more objective perspective of our hardships and begin to problem solve.

Woman practicing hopefulness by meditating outside

2. Share a smile

A surefire way to feel blessed is to share your blessings with others, and the same principle applies to fostering a hopeful mindset, urges pastor Max Lucado, Senior Minister of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio and author of God Never Gives Up on You: What Jacob’s Story Teaches Us About Grace, Mercy, and God’s Relentless Love.

“Hope comes to us when we give it to someone else,” Lucado promises. “That could be as simple as sharing a word of kindness — just give that and watch as your world expands.” Indeed, sharing a single building block of hope from a genuine compliment to a word of encouragement, will help you build your own positive frame of mind, as your thoughts move out of fear and self-doubt towards resilience and self-confidence.

3. Find your hero

Perhaps more than any other positive mindset, hope is contagious, reveals Dr. Larsen, which is why she encourages looking for an inspiring “hope hero” to emulate. Adds Lucado, “Fear causes us to isolate, which is why when you feel derailed, it’s so important to do the opposite — call a trusted friend and just say, ‘Do you mind if I ask how you got through a similar challenge?’” he notes.

Even watching your favorite hope-filled movie, from The Wizard of Oz to It’s a Wonderful Life, where the main character has to overcome major obstacles to achieve their happy ending, is shown to trigger a positive mindset as we look up to our onscreen heroes.

Woman feeling hopefulness as she smiles and holds remote control on couch

4. Create your ‘bounce back’ list

We all have a deep reservoir of resilience within us, but when life gets overwhelming, we tend to forget the activities that spur us on, observes Salzberg. That’s why she recommends jotting down two columns: in the first, write what you do to gain perspective and recharge, and in the second describe how you feel about it. For example, in the first column, you might write that you love being on the water or swimming, but in the second column you might reflect that you haven’t done this in years. Or, on the other side of that coin, you may write that you tend to drink or eat when you’re stressed.

“This simple exercise can help you realize that you don’t feel great about this habit, and it may help you find better ways to cope,” says Salzberg. “Stopping and reflecting on what makes you more resilient will reveal surprising truths that will help you persevere.”

5. Tap true confidence

Rather than slap on a faux smile when you’re feeling defeated, psychologist Karen Reivich, PhD, coauthor of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles and the director of training at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, encourages harnessing the power of genuine optimism with two simple words: “yes, and.”

“Tell yourself the truth: ‘This is hard; I feel so anxious.’ That’s the ‘yes’ part,” Dr. Reivich says. “Then add a ‘comma’ to that ‘yes’: ‘And I have two really good friends to rely on.’ Or if you feel like throwing in the towel at work, you might say something like, ‘And we’re going to be a better team six weeks from now when we will have navigated this challenge together.’” Admitting the challenge without glossing over it or pretending it away, ignites resilience and self-belief.

Woman shown in profile thinking and practicing hopefulness

6. Discover ‘you’ emotions

One of the biggest reasons we end up feeling like giving up is that we’re emotionally and physically exhausted. “That’s why it’s so important to look for tiny hits of positive emotion that will reenergize you,” says Dr. Reivich. “Ask yourself which core emotion is quintessentially you, from gratitude to curiosity, and find a small way to feel that every day.”

Dr. Reivich explains that when we feel like giving up, we often lose touch with what makes us who we are, and just pinpointing the emotion closest to our heart will energize our mind, body and spirit. “For example, I really connect with ‘awe,’ and every morning to ground myself in this emotion, I ask myself, ‘What’s beautiful here?’” she says. “Just seeing the reflection of flowers in the windshield of a parked car or the surprising patterns the moss makes on the ground helps inspire me to keep going.”

7. PLAN for positivity

Hope is an “action word” that spurs us to set and achieve goals, notes Dr. Hellman. “It triggers ‘pathway thinking,’ the ability to identify a roadmap that’ll get you from here to there, and that includes envisioning obstacles and problem-solving.” One way to create your hope-filled map is simply to think of the word PLAN, adds Lucado. “That stands for pray, learn, act and never (give up).”

First, leave your fears with a Higher Power so you no longer have to carry the burden, Lucado encourages, then learn what you can about your goal, be it downsizing options or money-making opportunities. Next, make a simple plan. “It shouldn’t be complex — just one step you can take, like contacting a realtor,” he says. The fourth and arguably most important pillar of PLAN is “never give up.” That’s just about acknowledging the progress you’re making, even when you have setbacks, because this is where hope lives — in our faith that tomorrow will be better because of your actions today.

Woman showing hopefulness by praying outside surrounded by red flowers

8. Embrace your future

There’s a common misconception about hopefulness, says Dr. Larsen. “It’s not always an effervescent feeling — it’s a conscious choice we practice daily by reminding ourselves to look for it.” What better way to help ourselves see hope than to literally see it? Just look for photos or images on your phone where something good happened in your past and create a hope collage out of them; it could be anything from a screensaver of photos to a tangible “hope poster” you hold in your hands.

“It’ll remind you that good happened in the past and it’s evidence that it will happen again,” explains Dr. Larsen. “Even amid darkness we can find hope partly through our own actions in the moment, partly through recalling stories of the past and partly by looking ahead to the future.”

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