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What Scientific Research on Hope Can Teach Us About Resilience

“Is it really the stress itself, or our inability to deal with the stress effectively that causes the deaths of despair?”

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul-and sings the tunes without the words-and never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

Hope is not some ‘soft, pink, fluffy’ concept or soft skill. That is something popular media, and our own misunderstanding, has projected. The word itself needs a rebrand, so try not to let the first thing that pops into your mind fool you.

Hope is small but mighty. I would even argue hope is more powerful than grit and resilience combined, because without hope your grit and resilience do you no good. Hope is a building block for everything in life, and without it, we fail to evolve and move humanity forward.

There are many ways to define hope; in simplistic terms it is feeling and action. To take it a step further, it is a positive feeling and inspired action. If you take nothing else away from this book – know that to hope for anything, you must create positive feelings and apply inspired action. 

Hopelessness, in contrast, is a negative feeling and no action. So, in very, very simple terms, we must consider feelings and actions when we look at hope and hopelessness.

Yet to move it beyond this, I think of hope as a vision, using positive emotion plus inspired action, as it truly encapsulates the key elements of the concept of hope.

Why Hope

The power of hope must not be underestimated. There is so much research around hope, and while I knew it was key to suicide prevention, I didn’t realize it predicted so many other, seemingly unrelated, life outcomes. 

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in an HBO documentary One Nation Under Stress, looks at why life expectancy in the US is falling. As these statistics are driven primarily by an epidemic of self-inflicted deaths of despair – from drug overdose, chronic liver disease and suicide – he talks about how the rise in the U.S. mortality rate can be seen as a symptom of the toxic, pervasive stress in America today. 

The documentary goes on to showcase how just 4 percent of the world’s population, Americans, take 80-90 percent of the world’s opioids. Cyril Wecht points out that stressors like depersonalization, economic uncertainty and unstable family units coupled with self-medication or over-medication of prescription drugs, showcase the pain associated with the stress. 

Yet we must ask, is it really the stress itself, or our inability to deal with the stress effectively that causes the deaths of despair? What is the root of it?  I would argue our ability to create and grow hope.

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, also featured in the documentary, studied the social behavior of baboons in the wild. He claims lack of control, lack of predictability, and lack of social support is what makes stress really corrosive. This is exactly what we know about hopelessness, and hope. And you will see all of these features – self-efficacy, navigating change, and how to create support, featured in our Hopeful Minds curriculum. 

Let’s look more deeply into the research on hope. We have shown, in our latest research (Kirby, 2019), that hope is in fact teachable in young children. And, in fact, as we increase hope, depression and anxiety decrease.

Research also shows that hope and hopelessness are two distinct but correlated constructs. Hope can act as a resilience factor that buffers the impact of hopelessness on suicidal ideation. Inducing hope in people may be a promising avenue for suicide prevention (PLOS, 2015).

Hope also uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement (Journal of Research in Personality, 2010). Hope, but not optimism, predicts academic performance of law students beyond previous academic achievement (Journal of Research in Personality, 2011). 

Hope is a strong predictor of positive emotions and hope and optimism are distinct from one another (Journal of Positive Psychology, 2009). Hopeful people also have a greater sense that life is meaningful (International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 2010).

There is also a strong business case for hope. Hopeful salespeople reach their quotas more often, hopeful mortgage brokers process and close more loans, and hopeful managing executives have a higher rate of meeting their quarterly goals (The Business Case for Hope, Forbes, 2019).  Self-efficacy, optimism, resilience, and hope in the workplace are key to productivity, yet hope accounts for 14 percent of productivity—more than intelligence, optimism or self-efficacy (Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013). Hope is a top need of employees, and effective leaders understand their followers’ needs: Trust, compassion, stability, and hope (Strengths Based Leadership, 2009).

Not convinced? To all of you sports fans out there, how about this? Hope predicts athletic outcomes. In a study of female athletes, trait hope predicted athletic outcomes; further, weekly state hope tended to predict athletic outcomes beyond dispositional hope, training, and self-esteem, confidence, and mood (Curry, 2007).

Hopelessness

To understand the importance of hope, we must look at the research around what it is not: Hopelessness. 

This body of evidence is large, and alarming, so if you are not inspired to act by the benefits of hope, perhaps you will be motivated by the impact of not addressing hopelessness. As the costs to society are great.

Hopelessness is the leading predictor of suicide and more closely associated with suicide than depression. “Hope is the bedrock of getting out of suicidal states,” says Jon G. Allen of The Menninger Clinic (APA, 2013). Hopelessness is predictive of both loneliness and suicidality, and there is no relation between loneliness and suicidality beyond hopelessness (Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 1996). If we want to address the global loneliness epidemic and prevent suicide, we must tackle the underlying hopelessness. 

Suicide is the leading cause of death, globally, for teen girls (World Health Organization, 2008), and the 2nd leading cause of death for youth.Suicide rates in young girls ages 10-14 are increasing faster than boys (Jama, 2019).  1 out of 9 students are self-reporting suicide attempts before graduating high school, with 40% of them in grade school (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2011). In a recent study, 36% of adolescent girls in the US self-reported depression before graduating high school, 25% of girls in the UK before age 14, and 70% of US teens age 13-17 said that anxiety and depression are the most critical issues facing themselves or their peers (Pew Research Center, 2019).

This is no joke. Young kids are taking their lives, reported as young as 6 years old. According to the CDC, children under the age of 12 take their lives every 5 days. More than 1,300 children ages 5 to 12 have taken their own lives, and we have no idea how many have attempted. For adults, this number is estimated to be 20 times higher. 

A review of hopelessness and risky behavior among adolescents living in high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods indicated the following (Journal of Adolescence, 2003):

●       Adolescents react to their uncertain futures by abandoning hope, leading them to engage in high levels of risk behavior.

●       Of 2,468 inner-city adolescents surveyed, nearly 50% of males and 25% of females had moderate or severe feelings of hopelessness.

●       Hopelessness predicted each of the risk behaviors considered: Violent and aggressive behavior, substance use, sexual behavior, and accidental injury.

The paper concluded that effective prevention and intervention programs aimed at inner-city adolescents should target hopelessness by promoting skills that allow them to overcome the limitations of hopelessness. Which is precisely what we are doing with Hopeful Minds.  

One study in particular showcased that hopelessness is an independent risk correlate for adolescent delinquency and violence (Maternal Child Health, 2011):

●       One in four youths (25.1%) reported levels of hopelessness at least enough to bother them in the previous month.

●       Moderate-high levels of hopelessness exhibited a statistically significant independent relationship with a range of violence-related outcomes for youth subgroups:

○       Delinquent behavior.

○       Weapon carrying on school property.

○       All forms of self-directed violence.

This makes complete sense. If you feel hopeless, you do whatever it takes to increase dopamine and gain control and power. Unfortunately, research supports that reduced levels of dopamine lead to seeking reward in all the wrong places, including risky behavior and violence (Chester, 2016). It is hard to believe but yes, these types of thrill-seeking activities increase dopamine, the feel-good chemical of the brain.

Unfortunately, many kids may not understand that this ‘feeling’ is only temporary, leads to worse outcomes, and the consequences of the behaviors are negative. They don’t know how harmful it is, and they are being resourceful in searching out whatever they can to feel better. Yet imagine how smart they would be if they were taught, young enough, the healthy ways to increase dopamine? 

Senator Elizabeth Warren claims gun violence is a public health epidemic. Her website shares some pretty shocking statistics; we are now losing 100 people a day to gun violence; our firearm homicide rate in the US is 25 times higher than other comparable countries; our firearm suicide rate is nearly 10 times higher; Women in the U.S. are 21 times more likely to be shot to death than women in other high-income countries, most killed by an intimate partner, and; 21 children and teenagers are shot every day.

These are terrifying and tragic statistics, and I agree we must address access to means which means looking at gun laws. In China, locking farmer’s pesticides (restricting access) was an effective way to reduce suicides, as they ingested pesticides lethally (means). Yet again, if we look at the root cause, is gun violence really the ‘health epidemic’? Or is it the feelings of extreme hopelessness that drives the behavior? I would argue that hopelessness, not gun violence, is the health epidemic and public emergency.

My own suicide attempt:

I was about 24 when my life took an unexpected turn. On a night that started out like every other night, fun, full of flirting, with shots and drinks in Northern Wisconsin, something that happened triggered the most intense explosive feeling inside my head, as if a bomb went off in my brain. I think it was a disagreement with a guy, and then maybe with my brother, but I can assure you it was no big deal. The issue was small, but it struck a very deep chord of pain and alarm and trauma and isolation, and I felt lost and afraid and alone in that crowded, smoky bar.

“I need out. Now. Of everything. Everywhere,” I thought.

With a deep throbbing in my brain I couldn’t explain, I peeled out of the parking lot, internally destroyed yet unable to reach out to anyone. I headed towards home in Minnesota, barely able to see in the pitch black of night, heading on a 2 ½ hour drive through backcountry roads in Northern Wisconsin. 

The world was closing in, suffocating me with a desperate need to escape. However, when I realized I could not make it in my inebriated and confused state of mind, driving through the dark, cold, winding roads, I turned around and got myself back to our farm. 

Stumbling into the house, I moved slowly despite the internal panic pulsing a million miles an hour through my body. Debilitating, compulsive, loud thoughts of, “How can I make this end? I need out. Stop this. Now,” raced through my mind.

I sought the brown cedar bathroom cupboards, grabbing whatever I could. This amounted to two club-sized bottles of sleeping pills. With my forehead leaning on the cold porcelain sink, I alternated between swallowing handfuls of pills and lapping bitter well water out of my cupped hands. I finished off the two giant bottles, hoping it would bring me peace, and dragged myself up to bed, ready to escape my pain once and for all. 

I had no thoughts of others, of what I was doing, or how it might impact anything else in my life: My dream marketing and branding job at American Express that I loved, the Master’s Degree in Business I began working on to create social impact products, the friends and family who had stayed through thick and thin. These joys were nowhere to be found in these moments. 

Collapsing on my bed, I drifted off into the abyss.

The next thing I knew, I was floating above that 4-poster canopy bed, looking down with complete love and empathy at a broken, sad, and scared little girl. The girl who had lost her father too soon. The girl that tried and failed to save him. The girl now unsure of her path in this world. The girl left without her father’s guidance.

As I watched from above, I lifted her up with gentle arms and guided her down that steep staircase with no rails, in the dark of night, and held her hair as she released years of despair into the toilet. I gently then guided her back up those stairs, under the covers, and sent her off to sleep, ensuring she would awaken the next day.

And awaken, late in the afternoon, I did. I got out of bed and quietly left the farm, avoiding contact with my brother, driving in shocked silence back to Minnesota. It would be 10 years before I ever told another soul.

While I was no stranger to the devastation left behind from suicide, I still couldn’t understand what went wrong. I never wanted to hurt anyone in that way, ever. The loss of my dad broke me into a million pieces.

Yet, I nearly did. At that moment, I realized that if I wanted to stay alive, I would need to start unraveling the puzzle.

Excerpt from The Biggest Little Book About Hope with permission from the author and publisher.

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