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The Healing Power of Hope

A study on ‘hope therapy’ aims to teach people with depression to use positive thinking to their advantage.

Dare to hope with positive thinking

Patty*, in her early 60s, was depressed, sure that her weight gain had caused her recent divorce. She began working out and eating better, and eventually the pounds came off. She felt great.

But, after a few months of being at her ideal weight, she began to feel depressed again. Life was blah. Though she kept up her exercise and diet regimen, she stopped being socially active. Then one day, she saw an ad for a research study offering free sessions of hope therapy.

This eight-week trial of two-hour sessions was an experiment to find out if people could be trained to feel hopeful. If so, could it reduce anxiety or depression?

The study, run by Dr. Jennifer Cheavens, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, was based on the evidence that hopeful people have better moods, better relationships and are more successful in areas of life such as athletics and academics.

Conversely, hopeless people experience fewer successes and are at higher risk for depression and physical illness. Cheavens says that hope is “thinking about how to get to your goals and then how muster and maintain the energy to get to your goals.”

“Hope is important because it taps into the energy required to keep going in the face of things that are difficult,” says Cheavens.

The hope therapy trial used three steps, beginning with goal-setting .

“People have a hard time setting goals. They are too big or amorphous or not well-placed in terms of where they are,” says Cheavens. The study participants set “stretch goals” that pushed them a bit beyond their current capabilities. After they achieved a stretch goal, they would set another, moving incrementally towards their goal.

The second step was to determine several pathways to the goal and to focus on the one or two most likely to lead to success. If the person experienced a setback in achieving one of the subgoals, then new pathways would be set to get around that. For instance, if someone who wanted to be a doctor did not get into medical school, they might do research in a lab, or volunteer at a hospital.

The last step is establishing the belief that the pathway will be successful. “Remind yourself of past successes,” says Cheavens. “Tell yourself why it’s important to you to keep moving forward on this, remind yourself of skills that you have.”

The participants also learned to reward themselves along the way. “It doesn’t have to be something monetary or food-based. It’s really just recognizing small steps as successes,” says Cheavens, adding that recognizing small steps is energy-boosting. For example, after calling five people potential job leads, one can say to oneself, “I’m making progress.”

The eight-week trial study, the first based entirely on developing hope, made the participants feel less anxious and depressed, and more hopeful and purposeful. The group therapy participants had improved their self-esteem, felt increased meaning in life, and were less anxious than those not in the group therapy.

As for Patty? “I figured when I lost weight and was in shape, I would be happy forever,” she says. But she realized that by focusing solely on weight loss, the rest of her life had stagnated. She developed hope by setting new goals to develop her new passion for hiking and to build friendships, then figured out ways to achieve those goals. Soon, she looked forward to waking up every day. 

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* Name has been changed to protect identity.

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