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.
Q | At midlife some women seem vulnerable to depression, or at least to a big dip in hopefulness. Do you think this is because by the time we’re over 40, we’ve lost confidence in our ability to reach our goals?
A | Well, I have no data to support this, but I think that for women, part of the dip in hopefulness—and the discontent that goes along with that—may come from having put their own goals second to other people’s needs for a long time. They might really benefit from reorienting themselves to a focus on “What do I want, not for other people but for myself?”
Q | If you aren’t in hope therapy, is there anything you can do to raise your hope level?
A | Yes. In fact, nobody’s in hope therapy yet, because we’re still researching it. But all the things we did in the study can be done outside that setting. You could start by articulating goals.
Q | Suppose your biggest goal is “I want to be thin.”
A | Well, that’s a very broad goal, which makes it hard to work toward. Try to break that down into something more concrete. And think in terms of things you want to approach rather than things you want to avoid. Instead of thinking, I don’t want to be so fat, you might say, “I want to fit into size 8 jeans.” Having goals you’re moving toward instead of problems you’re mov-ing away from is more energizing. We already have enough things in our lives that we’re trying not to have happen. And the more specific the goal, the better.
Q | Thinking in terms of negatives can be a hard habit to break. How do you turn that around?
A | Part of it is self-talk. Remind your-self of past successes, including successes in other areas that might spill over. For instance, if you’ve been able to take care of other people for a long time, you’ve certainly developed plenty of skills. There’s no reason to think you couldn’t apply those to the things you want. Another tool is self-care. This is an important part of the agency aspect of hope. Make sure you’re eating well and getting enough sleep and exercise. It’s hard to move forward toward a goal when you’re always feeling tired, hungry and cranky.
Once you’ve decided on a goal, start thinking of all the different pathways you could use to reach it. Pick one or
two so you don’t get distracted by having too many pathways.
It helps to map out your plan on a piece of paper or poster board. In our study we had people make goal maps with “you are here” on one side of the board and their goal on the opposite side. Then they would draw the different pathways they could use to reach them, along with any obstacles they anticipated and the things they thought were going to be a problem for them.
Q | How do you handle the obstacles?
A | Sometimes you can just use another pathway. That’s part of the reason for generating a lot of them. You can also make getting around the obstacle a little subgoal, as in, “Can you think of a path that would get you around the obstacle?” It’s the kind of visualization that groups like Weight Watchers use. For instance, you anticipate going to a party where there will be lots to eat, so you mark up a paper plate with a pen to show how much of each food you will take. On a goal map, you draw the obstacle blocking the pathway and then draw the little detour that gets you around the obstacle and puts you back on the big pathway.
Q | Can you give an example of how a woman might compose a goal map?
A | Look at the map on the left. Note that the starting point, at the bottom of the chart, is specific and nonjudgmental: “Weight: 167 pounds” rather than “I hate my thighs.” The mapmaker’s goal, written at the top of the page, is simple and positive: to weigh 140 pounds. She’s come up with three possible pathways to achieve that. Her main one, “Create a calorie deficit” is flanked by two routes: “Attend Weight Watchers” and “Increase healthy eating.” By visualizing each route, she’s been able to anticipate the potential obstacles that could block her way. “Can’t get out to the gym” and “Can’t get motivated” both sit squarely across her main pathway, potentially derailing her plan to burn more calories. Instead of giving up on the pathway, however, she now comes up with strategies (“Wii Fit or walking in neighborhood” and “Find workout partner”) that will circumvent the obstacle and put her back on the pathway to her goal.
Q | Supposing you follow all these steps but still can’t make progress in meeting your goals. Won’t that leave you feeling even more hopeless?
A | Let’s be clear. Sometimes we need someone to help us. Find a support system, whether that’s a psychologist or social worker, a church group, a book club, a diet group or a personal trainer at the gym. I’m not a proponent of always having to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It can be incredibly useful to have somebody give you a little agency boost.
I’d also recommend a 1999 book called Making Hope Happen: A Workbook for Turning Possibilities into Reality, by Diane McDermott and C. R. Snyder. You can find new or used copies online. We used the book as a basis for our study, and I think it’s a good starting point for anyone trying the self-help approach.