If hope were a franchise, a lot of people would claim to own a piece of it. Bill Clinton rode to two terms in the White House on the sunny idea that he still believed “in a place called Hope.” Barack Obama served it up as a two-part dish—hope and change, like fish and chips. Napoleon declared that “a leader is a dealer in hope,” which is a smart truth for an emperor to know, but maybe a little too cynical to say out loud.
Hope may be the lovely, lyrical, inspiring thing many people believe it is— “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called it. But to scientists, it’s also a more prosaic thing as well: a skill, a tool, a simple choice that is a lot less accidental, and a lot less serendipitous than most of us believe it to be. As psychologist Shane Lopez, a senior scientist at the Gallup organization argues in his new book, Making Hope Happen, it’s also much more attainable than it seems.
In both children and adults, there can be a hard-to-deny link between a robust sense of hope and either work productivity or academic achievement. In studies of this idea, hope is measured by a widely accepted psychological survey (a somewhat modified version of which is available on Lopez’s Hopemonger.com website) and productivity is measured by grades earned, sales made, widgets manufactured or any other metric that’s appropriate to the sample group. When Lopez and his colleagues recently gathered up a large body of this research and subjected it all to a meta-analysis, they came up with what they believe are very solid numbers.
“Our finding was that hope accounts for about 14% of work productivity and 12% of academic achievement,” he says. “It’s admittedly still a little unclear when it comes to establishing a firm cause and effect. But when you roll it all up in a meta-analysis you get a little more confidence.”
Hoping, Lopez stresses, is a lot different from wishing, though the two are often conflated. The über-bestseller The Secret is based on the vaguely defined and not-exactly peer-reviewed “law of attraction,” which in this case means that just having positive thoughts about wealth, love, success and more can draw all of those things to you. “This wonderful future will happen for you if you just sit back and wish hard enough,” Lopez says.
But wishing, he explains is only an element of hope—it is, in a sense, hope without a plan. And that often leads nowhere. In one study Lopez likes to cite, subjects were asked on a Sunday night what kind of week they wanted to have or imagined having. Some people responded with broad aspirations—a pitch meeting would go well, the kids would behave themselves, a long-planned dinner party would be a success. Others answered with similar plans, but included some kind of awareness of the obstacles that would have to be overcome on the way: the pitch needs a lot of rehearsal, the kids need after-school playdates, the food-shopping still has to be done.
“When the same people were interviewed in the middle of the week,” Lopez says, “those who had done that planning had generally retained a higher level of optimism than the people who’d merely articulated their goals.”
Effective hoping, Lopez says, is a very deliberate, three-step process. First there is selecting a goal, whether short-term, like going to the gym every day this week, or long term, like growing up to be an astronaut. Then you have to consider the gap between where you are now and where you will be when you achieve the goal, and lay out a series of sequential, short-term goals that will allow you to close that gap. Finally, there is the execution, establishing a plan for when you will begin to implement those steps and where and how you will execute them. If all that sounds vague and self-helpish and a little too much of the ten-days-to-a-better-you strategy, well, OK, there is some of that. But there’s more in the way of experimental results as well.
(MORE: Studying How the Brain Speaks)
Lopez points to studies in which this process, or versions of it, were implemented among groups of people, and various measures of their hope levels, such as self-esteem and productivity, were documented. In one such trial that he and his colleagues conducted in Portugal, kids who were taught the three-step hope technique reported an improved sense of self-esteem, which is a highly subjective metric, as well as improved grades, which is a more precise, empirical one. He also reports studies showing that people who score higher on the hope scale generally have a greater tolerance for short-term discomfort or inconvenience, measured in some experiments by how long they can keep their hand in a bucket of ice water before pulling it out. High-hope people generally last twice as long as low-hope ones. Hopeful people also tend to do better at having a multiplicity of plans—a number of routes to reach a goal so that if one is blocked they can switch to another.
“Mike Tyson used to say, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get hit,’” Lopez says. “Well, hopeful people have one for after too.”
It’s far too much to say that effective hoping is the only—or even the biggest—part of what it takes to succeed. If 14% of business productivity can be attributed to hope, that means 86% is dependent on raw talent, fickle business cycles, the quality of the product you’re selling, and often pure, dumb luck. But even if hope is just one ingredient in all of that, it’s a catalyzing, energizing one—the gas in the tank, the fuel rod in the reactor, the Mentos in the Pepsi. Hope may be the thing with feathers—but it’s also the thing with power.