Emily Dickinson described it as “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words that never stops at all.” Maya Angelou compared it to moons, suns, the “certainty of the tides,” and her own rise to empowerment. Every religion in the world cherishes it at the heart of every doctrine, tenet, and goal. “It,” of course, is hope, and the presence or absence of hope in our everyday lives can dramatically affect our quality of life.
It’s no secret that having hope makes a person’s outlook on life brighter. We all know that when we’re hopeful about the future, it’s easier to be creative, take risks, and find joy.
What’s less well known, however, is that hope is important for physical health as well—study after study demonstrates the connection. According to Dr. Mike Dow, hope physically “affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones—keeping levels of the former high and the latter low.” Naturopathic physician Dr. Jennifer Stagg adds, “The research paints a pattern of reduced risk of various diseases in people who have hope, and when they do fall ill, they have better outcomes. Hope can positively affect endorphin release and perception of pain. People who are hopeful practice healthier lifestyle habits, such as vegetable intake, smoking status, safer sex, and exercise.”
Unfortunately, hope tends to ebb and flow, and everyone struggles with hopelessness from time to time. These negative feelings can be self-induced or situation-induced, but no matter where it comes from, hopelessness can be discouraging and debilitating. Deb Cheslow, achievement expert and author of Unrealogical: Real People, Remarkable Stories of Transformation, writes that “There are times in most people’s lives when the bottom falls out from under them and they feel like they are spinning completely out of control.” Feeling hopeless is not a sign that you’ve failed—it just means you’re human.
Accepting that hope will come and go can be a difficult realization, but learning to rise out of periods of hopelessness can be an exciting, freeing, and empowering process. Overcoming hopelessness paves the road for positive outcomes to future challenges, and renewed hope can improve every aspect of your life in ways that would be impossible if you never experienced a loss of hope in the first place. Dr. Dow explains, “Spiritually, hope is fundamental to the way we see the world and the options we see for ourselves. It can help us to lead purpose-driven lives and even become kinder to others.” If we pursue hope in our own lives while remembering what it feels like when hope is in short supply, it’s easier to be more considerate to the people around us, who may be struggling with a stretch of negative emotions on their own journey. Feeling hopeless is hard, but it gives us an important experience of hardship that can open up deeper understanding and compassion in us for the human condition. This. in turn, can spur us to more virtuous and empathetic action, and enough of that empathy could drastically change the world and the way we treat each other. Anthony Acampora, a Faith in Recovery Program Director at the Banyan Treatment Center, and Chaplain explains his spiritual views on hope, “I believe when we lose all hope we lose a part of our soul. In addition, when we lose our sense of purpose, losing hope will not be far behind. We have the capacity to withstand tremendous suffering as long as we believe there is a greater purpose for it. When we remove our purpose, we begin the spirit downward toward losing hope. There is a biblical passage that says “ Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
There are also more personal benefits to experiencing hopelessness and striving for hope. Taking action (and not just exercising wishful thinking) on your hopes and dreams is a powerful reminder of your free will, which can open your eyes to new and exciting options that you might never have considered otherwise. Focusing on what you want instead of what you’re currently lacking isn’t easy (especially if you’re not in a very hopeful mental place) but the more you inject hope into your thoughts, feelings and beliefs, the more power you’ll give yourself over the outcome of your life.
Don’t give any mental energy to what you don’t have or what you don’t want—otherwise, that’s exactly what you’ll get. Instead, center your physical, emotional, and spiritual energy on what you do want to happen, and you can begin to create a hopeful, purposeful, positive, and healthy outcome for yourself and everyone around you.