Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Does Hope Really Make a Difference? Scientific Findings

Almost everyone has some experience with hope: We hope for the best. We hang on to hope. We despair when we lose hope.

It would seem that hope, which is broadly defined as an emotional state that promotes the belief in a positive outcome, is in inherent in human nature.

Reflections of the importance of hope are found in early mythology, religion, philosophy and literature.

Pandora, although forbidden, opened the box given to her by Zeus, and in a moment, all the curses were released into the world and all the blessing escaped and were lost- except one: hope.

“To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.” ― The King James Version of the Bible

“Hope is a waking dream.” –Aristotle

“Where there is no hope, it is incumbent on us to invent it.” -Albert Camus

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

Clearly we need hope, but even as we embrace it we often wonder – Does hope really make a difference? Is it myth, fiction, collective denial?

There is actually increasing scientific evidence that hope changes us psychologically and physiologically – that it makes a difference.

The Psychology of Hope

In his development of the psychology of hope, Charles Synder operationalized the definition of hope as “The sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.”

According to Synder, willpower is the mental energy, the emotional drive put toward a goal and waypower represents the conceptualization of mental plans toward the goal. The goal that is hoped for is usually somewhere between impossible and a sure thing.

What is important in this formulation of hope is the consideration of hope as an active and determined choice, not a passive or static position.

  • It resonates with Yael Danieli’s definition of hope when working with those who have faced trauma and loss as “the possibility of future options.”
  • It may be reflected in a person’s decision to put their hope in God and, as such, to believe in the power of pray in the face of pain.
  • It is the reason someone will tolerate pain and suffering if it offers the hope of a better life for their children.

Scientific Findings

  • Drawing upon this formulation, a recent study found hope to be a change mechanism in a group of 146 veterans diagnosed with PTSD who were enrolled in a 6 week residential cognitive processing treatment program.
  • In this treatment, hope was not targeted but was measured at the beginning, middle and end of treatment by the Synder Hope Scale.  The Hope Scale assessed the sense of agency i.e. “ I can pursue my goals” and the belief in pathways i.e. “there are a lot of ways around my problem.”
  • The findings indicate that having a higher level of hope coming into and during treatment was associated with PTSD-depression symptom reduction.
  • An important reflection of the need to learn more about the power of hope is that although hope itself did not change until mid to post-treatment, it was positively associated with reduction of PTSD and depression symptoms from the beginning of the study.

The Physiology of Hope

In his book, The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman asks and answers the question of whether there is a biological mechanism whereby the feeling of hope can contribute to clinical recovery.

Drawing upon his experience as an oncologist, Groopman describes his journey from giving a terminal patient false hope by not telling them the truth, to bluntly taking away all hope, to finding that a cancer patient (anyone) needs choice and understanding to truly have hope.

“To hope under the most extreme circumstances is an act of defiance that…permits a person to live his life on his own terms.”

It is after years of his own physical suffering and a recovery based on the hope that a rehabilitation program might give him back his life, that Groopman begins his pursuit of the biology of hope.

  • Citing research findings from placebo studies in varying medical areas, he illuminates the way in which belief and expectation, cardinal components of hope can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphin and enkephalins – the body’s own version of morphine.
  • He notes that given how the brain affects the body, many have experienced the reverse, i.e. when the body is experiencing pain, that pain amplifies our feelings of fear, anxiety and despair – the opposite of hope.
  • In response, Groopman reminds us that it often takes only a small stirring of possibility to confront despair and elicit the power of hope – a person with chronic illness is offered a way to lessen fatigue; a wounded veteran is able to drive again; a senior is given a way to be in the garden.

How Do We Hold on to Hope?

Intrinsic to Groopman’s personal understanding of the body-mind connection to hope, is another factor vital to holding hope – the human connection.

Holocaust Survivor, Elie Wiesel tells us, “…Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”

In the face of emotional pain and traumatic loss, it is very often another person who stirs and helps us hold on to hope.

It might come from hearing the journey of someone in a group who has suffered in a similar way.

It may be connection to a therapist who holds hope for both as they journey together.

It may be the positive expectation of the future heard in the laughter of your children.

It seems that we need hope and it seems that hope makes a difference in our lives. Does is dispel all pain, take away all sorrow, cure all illness? – No, but it gives us something very important.

 It is part of the human spirit to endure and give a miracle a chance to happen.

(Jerome Groopman)