I can’t lie to you—things these days are bleak. The new coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way our society works and, even more depressing, there are some serious ways in which it hasn’t changed things at all. People are dying. People are losing their jobs. And even people whose circumstances haven’t changed that much are dealing with new challenges they probably never thought they’d have to face.
In times like this (not that I can name another time like this), it feels impossible to maintain any sense of hopefulness or optimism about the future. Not only is it a challenge to imagine any future in a world where things are constantly changing, but it’s especially tough to think—let alone expect—a future in which things are actually somewhat positive.
But, as uncomfortable as it may feel, pushing ourselves to imagine that better future may be a crucial way for us to maintain some semblance of mental well-being—now and whenever that beautiful future does arrive.
What actually is this so-called ‘hope’ you speak of?
In general, having hope is having an expectation that something good will happen in the future or that something bad won’t happen, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). You can think about having hope in different ways; you can feel it as an emotion or use it as one way to motivate yourself to action or as part of a coping mechanism that gets you through loss.
Being hopeful makes you an optimist, which the APA defines as someone who “anticipates positive outcomes, whether serendipitously or through perseverance and effort, and who [is] confident of attaining desired goals.” We all exist somewhere on the spectrum of pessimist to optimist, and very few of us are full-on, forever, only glass half full people. So, it’s completely normal to have trouble being optimistic even in the best of circumstances. But now it’s even more of a challenge. So why even bother trying to be hopeful when things are so overwhelmingly bad?
“Basically, so we don’t feel so miserable and afraid about the things that we face in life that are inevitably going to come around from time to time,” Richard Tedeschi, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte specializing in recovery from trauma and bereavement, tells SELF. “If we can face them with a sense that there’s something we can do about them, life becomes easier to live.” Essentially, hope can be the catalyst to get us to create other behaviors that do make things a little easier. And performing those behaviors can, in turn, fuel more hope.
And for those with mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, cultivating hope and resilience can be key to managing their symptoms, Tedeschi says. In depression, for instance, a persistent feeling of hopelessness is often a defining symptom (and one of the criteria for diagnosis in the DSM). In the case of anxiety, fear is the driving factor. “In both cases they’re drawing the conclusion that things are out of their control and things aren’t going to work,” Tedeschi says. So, figuring out a way to become more hopeful even—or especially—when life is difficult, is usually a necessary component of treatment.
The benefits of being hopeful
Putting in the work to be hopeful has other psychological benefits, too. In particular, hope helps build resilience, which “is the ability to either recover quickly from events that are challenging or traumatic or a crisis or to be relatively unaffected by these events,” Tedeschi explains.
But resilience isn’t just being able to withstand a difficult situation, “it has to do with living a fuller life,” Lillian Comas-Diaz, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in trauma recovery and multicultural issues, tells SELF. “Resilience is a way of coping with adversity and being able to get some knowledge from that adversity,” which might help you improve your coping mechanisms for the future.