A Plan To Make Your Hopes Happen

With a piece of paper and a few simple tricks, you can recalibrate your mood and achieve your goals.

By Judy Jones

Something else to chalk up to the hormonal fluctuations of menopause and its lead-up: The years between 40 and 60 can be among the most emotionally challenging of your life. Add in an economic recession—when you may be forced to defer long-held desires, such as early retirement—and it’s not surprising if you feel out of sorts.

You’re not depressed, exactly, just increasingly persuaded that the life you have, whatever its rewards and pleasures, is not delivering the ride you thought you bought a ticket for.

What to do? While your discomfort may not call for a visit to the therapist, this could be the perfect time to boost your sense of well-being by taking a short course in positive psychology. Jennifer Cheavens, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, has conducted studies showing that the ability to feel hopeful about the future can act as a potent mood elevator. Are you hopeful enough to be happy? Here, Cheavens explains how to find out and how to deal yourself new cards if you aren’t.

Q | What led you to study hope?

A |
There’s a whole body of research showing that people with a high level of hope do really well in life and reap all kinds of benefits, from academic and professional success to general well-being. We wanted to know if feeling hopeful was just a matter of luck—congratulations if you have it; our condolences if you don’t—or if it could be taught. So we developed and then tested a kind of hope therapy.

Q | In your research you define hope in an unusual way. Can you explain?

A |
We define hope as goal-oriented thinking—in that sense it’s different from optimism, which is a sort of general expectation that good things will happen. In our definition, hope is more active than passive wishing. It includes two components, which we call pathways and agency. Pathways thinking reflects your ability to come up with lots of different ways to get what you want in the future. Agency is the amount of energy, will or motivation you bring to using those routes. A person can be high in both pathways and agency, or low in both, or high in one and low in the other.

Q | How can someone tell where she falls on the scale?

A |
You can get a pretty good sense by asking yourself three questions: Do I believe that I can get the things I want in my life? Do I think I can come up with ways to get what I want? Do I think those ways are things I can actu-ally do? For example, let’s say my goal is to meet someone to date. I could ask friends to set me up, I could go on Internet dating sites, I could hire a matchmaker, I could go to bars. I can see lots of ways to do it. So thinking of pathways isn’t a problem for me. But then I might think, I would never put my picture on the Web; I don’t have the money to hire a matchmaker; and I’m not really a drinker, which means I wouldn’t go out to bars. The result would be that even though I can come up with lots of pathways, I don’t have any confidence that I’d be able to use them. I’d be someone who scores high on pathways but low on agency.

Q | How does the therapy aspect of hope therapy come into play?

A | My colleagues and I did a study with a group of people—mostly women—who felt dissatisfied with their lives. They spent eight weeks having group therapy sessions in which they worked on the various skills needed to generate lots of pathways and increase their motivation and energy to use those pathways. A control group did not participate in the sessions; they just lived their lives for those eight weeks. At the end of the study, the people in the therapy group experienced better moods and lower stress, reported higher self-esteem, and felt their lives had more meaning than the control group. And how much better they felt matched up with how much hope they had.

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