“You can do it!”
“I believe in you!”
“Never give up!”
Each of these common motivational phrases is centered around the idea of cultivating one of the earliest and most crucial human virtues to develop: the virtue of hope. Hope is often defined as a wish, and with it an expectation, that something good will happen. Herein lies the beauty of the human mind: when we imagine and believe in a positive outcome, we actually increase our likelihood of achieving that outcome. Over the past few decades, scientists have found time and time again that hope is related to positive outcomes such as greater happiness, increased academic success, and an overall sense that life is meaningful. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that a great emphasis is placed on the importance of increasing hope in children.
Psychological Research on Hope
In his theory of hope, psychologist Charles Snyder described three components that he viewed as fundamental to this virtue: goals, agency, and pathways. Setting and achieving goals is integral for healthy human development. Agency refers to the belief and motivation that we can achieve our goals, while pathways are the set of steps necessary to accomplish the desired outcome. According to this theory, hope is essential for every step of decision making.
In fact, research has shown that children and adolescents with higher levels of hope tend to develop many life goals, they focus on success rather than failure when working towards their goals, and view themselves as capable of solving any problems that might arise. In addition, hopeful youth are generally more optimistic and have higher self-esteem and better mental health. We all know that being hopeful feels good, but these studies demonstrate that hope is also healthy.
Losing and Learning Hope
Perhaps the most striking way to see the power of hope lies in the cases where hope has been lost. Rates of depression have been rising, especially amongst teenagers; a key symptom of depression is a feeling of hopelessness. In a study investigating the relationship between hope and depression in adolescents, hopelessness was found to be the key predictor of depressive symptoms and suicidal behavior. Similarly, hope is negatively related to symptoms of depression in both children and teens. Taken together, these results suggest that higher levels of hope may protect individuals from the effects of negative life events on mental health. Therefore, psychologists suggest interventions for developing youth aimed at building positive expectations and optimism.
Fortunately, studies suggest that almost anyone can be taught to be more hopeful. Interventions aimed at increasing hope in children and adolescents have been successful in enhancing hope in all students, regardless of initial hope levels. In one study, scientists created a 5-week hope-based intervention for middle school students that was designed to increase hope, life satisfaction, self-worth, mental health, and academic achievement. This intervention harnessed the power of parents, teachers, and peers in helping students accomplish four main steps: 1) conceptualizing clear goals, 2) identifying a range of pathways for attaining said goals, 3) summoning the mental energy and motivation to continue goal pursuit, and 4) reframing seemingly insurmountable obstacles (i.e., “I will never do well on this test because I get anxious during exams”) as challenges to be overcome (i.e., “My test anxiety makes it more difficult for me to do well on this test; therefore, I need to practice stress-reducing activities that I can use to calm myself down”). The researchers identified two groups of students at the same middle school with similar initial levels of hope, mental-health, life satisfaction, self-worth, and academic achievement. One group then participated in the intervention, while students in the other group continued their routines as usual.
Both groups were tested immediately after, 6 months after, and 18 months after the intervention had finished. The students who had participated in the intervention reported higher levels of hope, life satisfaction, and self-worth. Even further, this positive impact was still found when the students were tested at the 18-month follow-up. This study showed that even a short hope intervention can have positive effects on psychological strengths, and that parents and teachers can help cultivate hope in children by encouraging them to set goals and helping make plans for goal attainment.
Hope and Media
Increasingly, children and teens rely on media and technology to structure their everyday life. We now have a unique opportunity to harness the power of this reliance to our advantage by developing programs and applications such as fun, positive-thinking, goal-setting smartphone apps that focus on increasing hope in developing youth. An impactful app could bolster hope by following a set of guidelines. First, the app could guide students through questions aimed at measuring their levels of hope. For example, the Children’s Hope Scale gives a total hope score, in addition to subscale scores for pathway and agency, components of hope. After a baseline hope score is determined, the app could offer an engaging narrative to teach students about hope theory and its relevance to setting and achieving goals, and then walk the student through creating a list of important life components and assess the student’s level of satisfaction within these areas.
Then come up with the most important steps: creating positive, specific, workable goals and developing multiple pathways to achieve each goal. The app should encourage the student to generate and focus on agency-promoting thoughts about each goal. The student’s baseline hope subscale scores will provide information about which aspects of hope are most important to target during this process. After the goals and pathways have been established, the app should check in with students weekly to remind them of their plans and encourage them to continue towards goal attainment. The app could also help students maintain motivation by offering incentives such as virtual points and trophies as goal progress is made. With apps such as this one, we can bolster hope in children and teens and give students the tools they need to work towards achieving a more positive and fulfilling life.
Amanda Baker is a Ph.D. psychology student at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines adolescent brain and behavioral development, with a focus on the emergence of anxiety in adolescence. https://galvanlab.psych.ucla.edu/lab-members/
This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.