A Case for Hope and Optimism

{Biswas-Diener, 2008. Invitation to Positive Psychology: Research and Tools for the Professional. A 6-week Course.}

Humans can think abstractly and plan, organize, and make decisions about the future. This allows us to set goals, marshal our resources, and hope for a better day.

Additionally, we can sacrifice short-term goals in favor of making long-term gains.

The gifts of our future-orientedness are hope and optimism.

Future-mindedness can be a blessing, but it can also be a curse, paralyzing our decision-making and preventing progress due to vivid imaginings of an unsuccessful future and potential negative consequences.

As coaches, consultants, therapists, managers, and teachers, it is our job to help others use the best aspects of positive psychology, hope and optimism to think productively about the future.

Positive psychology has produced effective theories and interventions for facilitating a hopeful attitude. This week we discuss ways to help clients and students harness optimism to their benefit.

The study of “affective forecasting” by Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson is a fascinating line of research related to future-mindedness.

Affective forecasting is our ability to predict how we will feel at some future point. These predictions of future happiness (or sadness, anger, etc.) are particularly important because they influence our decisions.

This suggests that people are more likely to get married if they envision a happy, rather than sad, life after the nuptials.

However, Gilbert, Wilson, and their colleagues have found that people consistently mispredict their future feelings.

Gilbert asked college students how they would feel if their school lost an important football game and asked young professors how they might feel if they were granted or denied tenure. He found that people generally predict in the correct direction but make errors in the intensity and duration of the feeling. The data suggest that while people take an emotional hit after a loss, it is usually less intense than they predicted and lasts shorter than they would have guessed.

Learning about the scientific results from future-mindedness, hope, and optimism studies can be useful because these topics directly affect clients’ or students’ motivation, decisions, and behavior.

Hope and optimism are important for professionals, as they lead to desirable outcomes at work and in relationships.

Studies show that people hopeful about the success of future outcomes are more likely to work hard toward them and to persevere even when tasks are difficult.

Optimism is associated with people giving up on impossible tasks when alternatives are present due to time use efficiency. Hope interventions are a perfect resource for professionals.

Hope helps us progress toward the goals we most highly prize, seeing us through dark times when we meet life’s natural hurdles and setbacks inevitable in our path toward treasured goals.

Obstacles to Hope and Optimism

Everyone has had the experience of being hopeless, whether in the final minutes of a game or under the weight of enormous responsibility.

This is the psychological equivalent of “I can’t do it.” Therefore, it is important to consider why people feel hopeless and feel they “can’t do it” to encourage their hope.

Resource-focused hopelessness is the feeling that people do not have the resources to reach the desired outcome.

This can be caused by a small staff, inadequate budget, or too little time, leading to stress, complaining, and not liking their work. This can lead to a lack of motivation to complete the project.

People can lose self-confidence due to goal-focused hopelessness when they view the goal as too big and feel overwhelmed, even if they have adequate resources.

Identifying clients’ reasons for hopelessness helps to increase optimism and motivation.

For example, consider a client who took on a side project of writing a book but felt petrified when she thought about starting the work. Ultimately, discussing the project in terms of writing a section, a chapter, and a page, these smaller measurement units allowed her to move forward.

The idea of “naïve optimism” is a commonly held view that hopeful people are often unrealistic while more cynical people are more attuned to reality.

Research suggests that goals and resources must be well-matched and that unrealistic optimism is not just a matter of goals.

In the late 1970s, Margaret Matlin and David Stang published results suggesting that people who tended to attend to positives and be happy also tended to overlook negatives. This phenomenon was dubbed the “Pollyanna Principle.”

The critical question is whether it is problematic to be a Pollyanna, as it is thought to miss important problems and set itself up for disappointments.

The truth is that happiness is directly linked to more productivity, creativity, and energy, and happier people are better for business.

The fear of failure is a natural part of life. When there is a high likelihood of failure, it may be prudent to adjust hope to align it with reality or adjust the goal accordingly.

However, meaningful goals often require risks, and research shows that people are sensitive to losses of this nature.

The potential win is greater than the prospective loss of life’s larger gambles, such as new relationships, starting a home business, launching a new product, or trying to lose weight.

For most people, the prospect of losing that £80 “weighs” more heavily on their minds than winning the larger sum of £100, even though the chances of either outcome may be equal.

This is because they don’t want to waste time, energy, money, or social connections on projects that fail.

It is important to recognize that “getting cold feet” is a natural phenomenon and to remember that failure is essential for growth.

Thomas Edison famously quipped that he had “found 9,999 ways not to do it” on his 10,000th attempt to make his electric light bulb work.

Hope Theory

Rick Snyder’s “Hope Theory” suggests that people have hope when three conditions are present: goals thinking (working toward a goal), pathways thinking (described below), and agency thinking (self-confidence).

This can be invaluable in working with clients to develop one or all of these areas to foster a can-do attitude.

Goal thinking is an important part of human psychology. It helps structure our time, aid us in making tough decisions, give us a bulls-eye to shoot for, act as a yardstick to measure personal progress and offers us a tangible outlet for living our values.

However, not all goals are created equally, and the SMART acronym suggests that “good” goals share a particular architecture.

Research from positive psychologists suggests that power-related goals are toxic to personal satisfaction. In contrast, those related to affiliation, generativity, and spirituality appear to promote wellbeing.

To increase optimism, it is important to pay attention to the realism, theme, values congruency, and other features of goals when working with people to increase their optimism.

Pay attention to the language used when discussing goals, the emotional intensity, the theme, how realistic the goal sounds, and how well the goal matches the individual’s resources.

These aspects offer a potential avenue for questioning and encouragement that can increase hope.

Pathways thinking is a fanciful term that means “creative problem solving.”

Optimistic people see many routes to achieving a goal. When obstacles arise, they can find new solutions and continue making progress.

In the early history of railroads, designers in places like Switzerland and the American West faced the problem of mountains. So they found various ways to get trains through the mountains, such as specially fitted “cog trains” and dynamite.

These designers could think around the problem and persevere even when obstacles presented themselves.

As a manager, therapist, coach, or teacher, it is important to help facilitate pathways thinking in those you work with.

This can be done through powerful open-ended questions such as “What else might you do here?” “What have other people done to overcome a similar situation?” and “Name three different things you might do to address this problem?”

These queries can spark new lines of solution-focused thinking.

Brainstorming is a common tool managers, teachers, and consultants use to facilitate pathways thinking.

It is fun and creative, and coaches can facilitate this process by joining in with suggestions and making things silly to promote out-of-the-box thinking.

An example is a client who wanted to start a natural home cosmetics business. Still, her original funding source dried up, and she feared she would have to shut her business down.

To lighten the mood and set the tone for some playful ideas, the coach asked the client to tell a quick joke and set up the structure for brainstorming.

They brainstormed ideas ranging from the mundane to the fantastic, creating a list that was more creative and thorough than anything they could have come up with individually.

After brainstorming, they could sift back through the ideas and pull out those with merit, aligning with the client’s values and resources.

The client had several workable funding ideas in ten minutes, ranging from loans to fundraisers to strategic partnerships.

As a professional working with others, it is important to recognize that one’s vitality can affect the hope of those we work with, catalyzing major attitude change.

Your can-do attitude can be infectious; even suggesting a brainstorming session implies a possible solution.

Professionals and clients alike can take heart in knowing there is always another way to think about things. Not every solution works out, or every session produces a perfect solution.

Hope Theory emphasizes the importance of agency thinking, the belief that a person can achieve an objective.

Self-confidence is a key feature of optimistic people, and boosting it is easy.

People with low self-esteem are less likely to work hard, persevere in the face of hardship, or take risks that could lead to success.

Two simple methods for boosting self-confidence are acknowledging the strengths and successes of people we work with and focusing on core client strengths rather than in-the-moment achievements.

Acknowledging core strengths and virtues can stroke egos authentically and raise self-esteem and self-confidence, boosting optimism.

This can be done by commenting on friends and colleagues more centrally, as in, “I am really impressed with your courage.”

The second confidence booster is a formal “solutions focus” approach to psychotherapy developed by Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer.

This approach looks at past successes rather than failures to learn how to cope with current problems.

There are a variety of techniques used in solutions focus work, such as interviewing for exceptions, scaling questions, and coping questions.

The basic underlying principles of solutions focus are that every client has experienced success and can use those past victories to boost their self-efficacy.

Positive psychology interventions are not one-size-fits-all, and some clients resist them. So don’t beat yourself up if a technique doesn’t work or a client balks at a particular intervention.

Instead, try something new, get creative, work in alliance with your client, and you will find a way together.


Perfectionism is a culture in Western societies, with many people striving to be a “10 out of 10” and believing that high expectations are the only way to achieve their desired success.

However, people who strive to be 10s, and succeed, are few and far between.

Perfectionism is toxic to optimism for most people and can lead to discouragement and a lack of motivation.

For highly driven people, being excellent will likely be more rewarding and achievable than being perfect.

The average client with a perfectionist attitude will likely be discouraged rather than highly motivated.

Nick Baylis, a positive psychologist in Cambridge, suggests that someone may be a perfectionist if they focus too heavily on achieving a goal and not enough on enjoying the process of achieving it.

To balance the tension between the admirable goal of striving for extreme excellence and the danger of setting oneself up for failure, it is important to steer clients’ focus toward the journey rather than the destination.

Questions such as “What do you enjoy about the work you are currently doing?” and “Even if it took twice as long to reach your goal, why might you continue pursuing it?” can elicit important information many clients overlook.

Reminding clients there is no finish line without the race can be just the ticket to optimism.

Knowing that an eight is still exceptional can lead to the insight that they have the power to see their projects to the finish line.

A Resource for Professionals: Hope Questions

How would you know if you were successful in this goal?

What would not attempting this goal cost you?

Which of your past goals have you succeeded in?

What led to that success?

Tell me about a time when you were not facing this problem.

How have you overcome similar problems in the past?

How have other people overcome similar problems in the past?

Tell me about your resources that might help with this problem.

How optimistic are you that you will reach this goal?

What leads you to be as optimistic as you are?

What do you enjoy about working on this project daily, regardless of success or failure?

If this problem were happening to a friend, what might you tell her?

Tell me about a time that you could have given up but didn’t.

Tell me three different ways you might overcome this hurdle.

What would your life be like if this problem were to disappear suddenly? How would you know? How different is that situation from what your life is like now?

Tell me about a time when you were at your best. How might you use some of your best attributes in this situation?

Remind me of the success you have already experienced on this project.

What would that look like if you could snap your fingers and magically find the strength to persevere? What would allow you to persevere now?

Here is what I have always admired about you: X, Y, Z.

Tell me which of your strengths and virtues your spouse or friends might brag about.

Optimism, Explanatory Style, and Hope

{Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011. Positive Psychology: Theory, Research, and Applications}

Discuss the strengths and limitations of Snyder’s cognitive formulation of hope.

Is seeing a glass as half full always beneficial?

Compare and contrast the theories of dispositional optimism and explanatory style.

The main difference between the two concepts of optimism involves the argument between trait versus learned ability.

There are many health benefits from engaging in optimistic thinking as well as positive illusions.

Pessimism isn’t always bad (for example, defensive pessimism).

Hope theory posits that people need agency and pathways to experience hope.

Which type of ‘IST’ are you? An optimist? A pessimist? A defensive pessimist?

Which theory of optimism do you relate to? Why?

Is it better to think things will turn out well and avoid worrying? Or should we expect the worst and not be disappointed?

Is hope always a good thing?

Researchers suggest we can experience ‘big optimism,’ which focuses on generic, more grand positive expectations, or ‘little optimism,’ which focuses on more immediate and specific positive experiences. Can you give an example of each?

How can internal locus of control and optimistic explanatory style for bad events contribute to functioning? (Tip: consider the internality dimension.) How would you work on increasing internal locus of control and self-efficacy?

School performance is improved, and efficacy is increased when students adopt short-term goals, learn specific learning strategies, and receive rewards based on engagement and not just achievement. So write down your short-term academic goals and reward yourself for your engagement with the material once you’ve hit those targets.

Write a character sketch of yourself, but in the third person, as it might be written by a friend who knows you well. Reflect on both your positive and negative characteristics. (Branden, 1994)

History of optimism

Optimism has been described as a ‘Velcro construct’ (Peterson, 2006:119) as it has many correlates, including happiness, health, and achievement.

In the early days of philosophy and psychology, optimism was thought of as naivety or a simple denial of suffering.

However, since then, researchers have found evidence to suggest that optimism isn’t just a form of denial but a necessary component for resilient and happy individuals.

Two main schools of thought conceptualizing optimism are dispositional optimism and explanatory style.

Dispositional optimism is a personality trait relating to generalized outcome expectancies. It is characterized by two main elements: expectancy and confidence.

Expectancy is the most crucial element as it directly links with expectancy-value theories of motivation, which posit that all behavior results from the desire to obtain a person’s values or goals (the self-regulatory model).

Confidence, the second element, is highly influential on optimism.

Attribution style (explanatory style) is how one explains the causes and influences of previous positive and negative events to create expectancies about the future.

Research has shown that attributions for negative events are more important than those for positive events.

Pessimists explain negative events by inferring internal, stable, or global causes, while optimists explain negative events by inferring external, unstable, or local causes.

Literature has shown that the explanatory style’s ‘internal versus external’ component is not as important as stability and globality.

The main difference between the two schools of thought is that attributional style recognizes optimism as a learned skill, not a stable personality trait.

Benefits of optimism

Over the past few decades, research has provided convincing evidence of the benefits of an optimistic outlook, especially in depression and stress, health, and psychological trauma.

Optimism predicts active coping with stress, while pessimism predicts avoidant coping. These differences in coping then tend to predict psychological and physical adjustment changes.

Optimism can help lead to the engagement of active, constructive coping, such as acceptance, positive reframing, and the use of humor. In contrast, pessimism has been linked with disengagement and denial among breast cancer patients.

Optimism can also prospectively predict incidences and levels of postpartum depression, even when controlling for initial depression severity. Optimism is suggested to protect mothers against developing depression following birth.

Researchers have observed a correlation between pessimism scores and the prediction of early mortality among young patients with recurrent cancer.

There is also evidence to suggest that optimism is associated with living longer.

Patients who engaged in ‘realistic acceptance’ of the inevitability of death had a shorter survival time in a sample of 78 men with AIDS (Reed et al., 1994; reviewed in Taylor et al., 2000).

Optimists tend to be unrealistically optimistic about their ability to control their health, but this can lead them to persist with health-promoting behaviors such as eating lower-fat food, taking vitamins, and enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Overall, researchers in optimism would argue that optimists are not simply people who stick their heads in the sand and ignore threats to their wellbeing.

Positive illusions (Taylor, 1989) and self-deceptive strategies (Taylor and Brown, 1988, 1994) are predicated on the belief that people are biased toward optimistically viewing themselves.

These illusions have an unrealistic sense of personal control and an unfounded optimism that the future will be better than the facts suggest.

Research has shown that we are not good at accurately identifying reality.

Optimism and locus of control

Perceived control relates to a person’s self-assessment of their ability to exert control, which is often overestimated.

Locus of control (LOC) was developed in 1966 by Rotter and has been examined by many researchers against hundreds of diverse dependent variables.

People with a strong internal locus of control believe that the responsibility for whether or not they succeed lies within themselves. In contrast, those with a strong external locus of control believe that success or failure is due to luck, chance, or powerful others.

Researchers have been studying whether or not LOC is a fixed personality trait and can vary according to the situation.

Rotter (1966) challenged the oversimplified conceptualization of LOC that implied a fixed personality trait.

Rotter argued for the unidimensionality of the locus of control scale, while a substantial body of research supports the multidimensional characteristics of the majority of locus of control scales.

Internals are likelier to work for achievements, tolerate reward delays, and plan for long-term goals, while externals are likelier to lower their goals.

Internals benefit more from social support and prefer games based on skill, while externals prefer games based on chance or luck.

There is some link between LOC and increased exercise, weight control, breast examination, alcohol consumption, and delay in gratification.

This concept is also important concerning education, with internals earning somewhat better grades and tending to work harder.

Defensive pessimism

Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy to set low expectations for an upcoming performance, despite having performed well in previous similar situations.

It has been found to cushion the potential blow of failure.

Defensive pessimists set their sights unrealistically low and think about how to solve potential problems in advance of a daunting task.

Trying to change defensive pessimists into optimists is counterproductive.

Defensive pessimists have also been found to show significant increases in self-esteem and satisfaction over time, perform better academically, form more supportive friendship networks, and make more progress on their personal goals than equally anxious students who do not use defensive pessimism.

Unrealistic optimism

Unrealistic optimism or wishful thinking can negatively affect individuals, as they perceive risk as lower than average.

This can lead to an optimistic bias in risk perception, with optimists viewing themselves as below average for occurrences such as cancer, heart disease, failure, and heartbreak.

Additionally, in the case of serious traumatic events, optimists may not be well prepared.

Therefore, engaging in blind optimism may be unhealthy for long-term physical and psychological wellbeing.

Positive realism or flexible optimism can help avoid ‘wishful thinking’ and assess the likelihood of positive and negative outcomes in any situation.

The three ‘selves’ in optimism: self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy

The three ‘selves’ (self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy) are used interchangeably within everyday linguistic life.

Self-confidence is the most notorious of the three and has some narcissistic connotations.

Self-efficacy is the belief that a person can reach their goals or a desired outcome.

Self-reflection is one of the core features of agency and is expressed in the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy beliefs provide the foundation for human motivation, wellbeing, and personal accomplishment.

Self-efficacy is not a perceived skill but what individuals believe they can do with their skills under certain conditions. It is not a motive, drive, or need for control but a belief that I can perform the behavior that produces the outcome.

Self-efficacy is not a personality trait but is domain and situation-specific.

Bandura (1977, 1986, 1997) posits that self-efficacy derives from our mastery or performance experiences, our own direct attempts at control, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and imaginal experiences.

Maddux (2002) suggests that self-efficacy can be developed through imaginal experiences, imagining ourselves or others behaving effectively in hypothetical situations.

Social cognitive theory (SCT) is a psychological concept developed by Albert Bandura.

It consists of personal factors such as cognition, affect, and biological events; behavior and environmental influences create interactions resulting in triadic reciprocality.

SCT differs from biological and behaviorist theories as it views people as self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating.

Observational learning is another component of SCT, discovered through the ‘Bobo doll’ studies, which showed that children (aged 3 to 6) would change their behavior by simply watching others.

Bandura and his colleagues also demonstrated that viewing aggression by cartoon characters produced more aggressive behavior than viewing live or filmed aggressive behavior by adults.

Additionally, having children view pro-social behavior could reduce displays of aggressive behavior.

Self-efficacy is a key factor in adopting and succeeding in healthy behavior changes, such as exercise, diet, stress management, safe sex, smoking cessation, overcoming alcohol abuse, and compliance with treatment regimes.

It also affects the body’s physiological response to stress, including the immune system.

When people have high levels of self-efficacy, they tend to engage more with goal setting and self-regulation, influencing choices of goal-directed activities, expenditure of effort, and persistence in the face of challenges and obstacles.

Collective efficacy is defined as a group’s shared belief in its conjoint capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment.

Self-efficacy impacts our choices, the effort we put forth, the level of motivation, how we feel about ourselves, others, and the task, and how long we persist when we confront obstacles.


Over the decades, there have been several definitions proposed for the concept of self-esteem, such as global and specific (Rosenberg et al., 1995), trait and state (Crocker and Wolfe, 2001), contingent and true (Deci and Ryan, 1995), and explicit and implicit (Karpinski and Steinberg, 2006).

The effects of self-esteem are often entangled with other correlated variables such as high subjective wellbeing, low neuroticism, and high optimism.

Individuals with high levels of self-esteem tend to report greater perseverance in situations where they consider themselves likely to succeed.

Low levels of self-esteem have been linked to several negative outcomes.

However, high levels of self-esteem aren’t always a good thing, as people who score high but have unstable self-esteem tend to be particularly prone to anger and aggression.

The sociometer model of self-esteem suggests that self-esteem correlates strongly with whether one believes one is included or excluded by other people.

Low self-esteem and depression often follow social exclusion. Aggression among individuals with low self-esteem can be better explained by social rejection than low self-esteem per se.

The terror management model of self-esteem perceives self-esteem as a function to shelter people from deeply rooted anxiety inherent in the human condition.

However, Deci and Ryan (2000) argue that people typically engage with life and seek challenges, connections, authentic meaning, and significance, not because they are trying to avoid the scent of death.

Interventions aimed at boosting self-esteem can produce positive outcomes, but high self-esteem can also be illusory and lead people to conclude that they are doing better than they are.


Hope is defined as the determination to achieve goals (agency) plus the belief that many pathways can be generated.

Agency thoughts motivate the person, while pathways thinking reflects an individual’s perceived ability to formulate plausible goal routes.

People with high levels of hope often set more difficult goals but are more likely to achieve them.

This is used in CBT, where therapists facilitate both agency thoughts (efficacy thoughts) and pathways thoughts (breaking down complex goals into achievable steps).

High scores on hope correlate with self-esteem, positive emotions, effective coping, academic achievement, and physical health.

Hope also buffers against interfering, self-deprecatory thoughts and negative emotions and is critical for psychological health.

The explanatory style model of optimism and Snyder’s hope model suggest that we can change to a greater extent than the dispositional model of optimism.

Explanatory style explains most of the mechanism through which we are optimistic and is least focused on the future.

Future research should focus on clarifying the structure of optimism and understanding the developmental antecedents of optimism, especially within a child’s environment.

Research has shown a clear link between childhood socioeconomic status and later optimism, even if the adult’s socioeconomic status changes.

Parent transmission (modeling, teaching coping styles) is an important topic for future research, as is the development of interventions targeted at increasing optimism in early and adult life.