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Mental Health

The Mental Shift That Banishes Stress and Sparks Joy

Change your mind, change your life.

As you FaceTime with your little grandkids, you marvel at their joy as they show off their latest artwork full of blooming flowers. In a word, they’re bursting with hope. If only you could be too. Well, they’re children, you tell yourself. It’s harder for stressed adults to look on the sunny side. Though we’re all experiencing somewhat of a “hope deficit” during these challenging times, it is possible to both cultivate this positive mindset and use it as a springboard to a brighter future.

“Hope is simply the ability to envision and believe in a joyful future,” reveals Denise Larsen, PhD, director of Hope Studies Central at the University of Alberta. “Research shows that when we make the decision to hope, we’re more likely to behave as if good things will happen and engage in trying to make them happen.” In fact, studies show that hopefulness is one of the best predictors of our ability to overcome challenges.

Even more important, hope is uniquely qualified to help us through the unprecedented stress we’re all facing. “We’re optimistic when the likelihood of a positive outcome is high,” says Larsen. “In a way, it’s easy to be optimistic. But when the future is unknown, we talk in the language of hope — it acknowledges uncertainty.”

Simply put, hope is incredibly powerful because it isn’t wishful thinking, it’s active thinking, spurring us to move forward and solve problems. Just read on to learn how to spark this energizing, empowering, peace-giving mindset.

Call on your hope hero.

The sun rays streaming through your window would normally brighten your mood, but today they cast a harsh spotlight on the unfinished résumé on your kitchen table. Feeling powerless over a daunting job search, you watch your motivation ebb. “Helplessness and despair immobilize us,” says Larsen. “It’s hard to act because we start to believe that no matter what we do, it just won’t make a difference.”

When you feel despair creep in, simply reach out to someone who shows hopefulness in their life. “The more we see hope in others, the easier it is to access in ourselves,” says Larsen. “Let them know you’re struggling; the simple act of being heard is powerful.”

If you can’t find someone, do the next best thing: Watch your favorite hope-filled film, urges hope researcher Chan Hellman, Ph.D. “Focus on the characters’ agency, or how they plan ahead,” he says, using Good Will Hunting as an example. “When we identify with a character who’s overcome adversity, this ‘hope modeling’ increases our confidence to change our own future.”

Look for tiny glimmers of good.

You were devastated when your big anniversary trip had to be canceled, and now, you can’t shake the blues. “First, acknowledge that, yes, you are sad — otherwise hope becomes disconnected from reality,” says Larsen, explaining that depression is a kind of blindfold keeping light out, but this darkness is temporary. “In fact, people who are depressed often say that they just can’t ‘see’ hope.”

To instantly lift your spirits, try on hope-colored glasses by looking for “glimmers” of good. “Take a walk and notice where hope appears to you, aiming for about 10 small things — from a new flower blooming in your garden to listening to birds chirping, that pinprick of light is where hope grows,” says Larsen. “My students have even said that traffic signs are emblems of hope because they symbolize moving forward.” We can literally train ourselves to see the positive, joyful things around us, until it’s the only thing we see.

Create a “bliss collage.”

While you’ve been an empty-nester for a few years, you never truly felt like one until your youngest child recently moved to the opposite coast. Feeling isolated and a bit disoriented, you’re not sure how to fill this void. “One of the best ways to enhance hope is by spending time with others,” notes Larsen. “Whereas, loneliness threatens our sense of a positive future.”

Getting in touch with ourselves is often the first step to feeling more connected to others. Simply look for images of what hope means to you in the past, present, and future — from a baby photo of your now-adult daughter to a snap of the butterfly in your garden this morning to the pic of the puppy you’d like to adopt.

Put these images together in a “hope collage,” and ask a loved one to do the same so you can share yours with each other, suggests Larsen. Not only does this ward off loneliness by reminding you what hope looks like to you and how deep it goes, it also brings you closer to loved ones. When we see someone’s hopes, we see who they are.

Tap into the power of faith.

It may be the middle of summer, but your thoughts are already racing toward fall. Could there be a second wave of illness? Will my finances recover? “While hope invites us to imagine what’s possible and good, fear makes us envision a future we don’t want to be part of,” says Larsen. “That’s why fear is actually considered the opposite of hope.”

One of the best ways to quell fear and cue hope is through spirituality and support. “I think of hope as the deep conviction that all will work out someday,” says pastor Max Lucado, author of Anxious for Nothing ($11.99, Amazon). “Leaning on God, or a higher power, to help carry our worry frees us from the stress of uncertainty so we have the heart-space to believe good things will come.”

Also effective: List the blessings you have in your life right now. Gratitude can propel you to make an action plan, such as creating a small network of three to five people that you try to give hope to during difficult times, says Lucado. “Both tapping into our faith and offering to support others defies fear by showing us that we’re never alone!”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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