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The Connection Between Hope and Mental Health

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In frightening and uncertain times, it’s hard to feel hopeful. But studies show that having hope for the future helps build our resilience—the ability to get through tough times and recover more quickly from setbacks. Moreover, hope can help ward off or reduce anxiety, trauma, and depression.

What if you’re not a hopeful person by nature? That’s okay: We all have the ability to strengthen our “hope muscle” and therefore increase our positivity and resilience, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

Are Teens and Young Adults Hopeful or Hopeless Right Now?

As we might expect during a pandemic—coupled in this country with stark political division and civil unrest—young people aren’t particularly hopeful about their future right now. A survey released June 17, commissioned by National 4‑H Council and conducted by the Harris Poll, found that 70 percent of teens are struggling with their mental health. Furthermore, 65 percent of the 1,500 teens surveyed (ages 13–19) said that uncertainty about the future was making them anxious or depressed. On the positive side, 68 percent of teens considered themselves to be resilient—equipped to handle life’s challenges.

As for young adults, a global survey of Gen Z and millennials conducted by Deloitte in late 2019 and early 2020found that this age group’s levels of hopefulness for the world and their future had gone down slightly from the previous survey. After the pandemic set in, however, Deloitte did a “pulse survey” of a smaller number of young adults. This time, not surprisingly, they found a significant drop in hope and optimism.

The Science of Hope

What defines hope, exactly? According to the “hope theory” formulated by positive psychologist Charles Snyder and his colleagues, hope gives people the will, determination, and sense of empowerment that allows them to reach their goals. A large body of research on hope demonstrates its power to support well-being, even more so than optimism or self-efficacy (our belief in our own abilities).

Research over the past decade and more shows that people who are hopeful

  • Are more likely to attain their goals
  • Do better academically
  • Choose healthier lifestyle habits
  • Cope with and recover better from illness
  • Experience higher life satisfaction
  • Have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose.

How Hope Impacts Mental Health in Young People

A recent review of the research on hope and mental health looked at 20 studies involving college students, who suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety, and distress. The study authors synthesized the research, conducted over the last decade. Hence, they found five major themes regarding the role hope plays in young people’s mental health:

  1. Hope is associated with improved coping
  2. Improved well-being is also associated with hope
  3. Depression and negative life events are less intense for those who are more hopeful
  4. Having hope is a protective factor against suicide and negative, self-deprecatory thinking
  5. A hopeful person is more likely to engage in healthy behaviors.

“Hope isn’t the alleviation of fearful risk, or the sidelining of anxiety. It’s the choice to see beyond the current circumstances to something better despite the presence of those feelings.”
—Ron Carucci, Organizational Change Consultant

Research on Hope: The Impact on Anxiety and Trauma

Along with improving overall mental health, hope may also play a role in healing specific conditions, including anxiety- and trauma-related disorders. A 2020 study led by Matthew Gallagher, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Houston, looked at the link between hope and mental health treatment for anxiety.

Gallagher and his team studied how hope impacted recovery among 223 adults who were being treated for social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The study concluded that “hope was a common element and a strong predictor of recovery,” said Gallagher.

Research also shows that hope helps to moderate the impact of trauma, whether from military experiences, sexual assault, or other traumatic events. One study found that hope, along with optimism and social support, was associated with reduced trauma symptoms following exposure to terrorism. A 2019 study on survivors of childhood sexual abuse found that hope was associated with post-traumatic growth—positive change that occurs as a result of a traumatic event.

Hope and Resilience

Resilience is key to the connection between hope and mental health. Resilience refers to the ability to bounce back more quickly after adverse experiences, and to learn from those experiences. Resilient people don’t ignore or suppress difficult emotions; they process them, learn from them, and take those lessons into the next phase of their life. Hope and optimism are closely associated with resilience.

In a 2018 study, researchers looked at hope and resilience among 692 teenagers in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades in four high schools located in low-income regions. They found that the teens who were more hopeful were also more resilient.

“The most resilient people—those who can recover quickly from experiences of fear and move toward reasoned action—actively practice hope and optimism daily.”
—Erin Lynn Raab, PhD, education and resilience expert

5 Ways to Cultivate Hope and Reduce Anxiety

These powerful, evidence-based practices can help teens and young adults cultivate hope and support better mental health.

  1. Focus on your strengths. Tapping into our natural strengths cultivates a sense of hope and resilience. For example, if you’re naturally creative, think about how you can use that strength to overcome difficulties as you move forward in life. If connecting with others is one of your strengths, reach out to friends and loved ones as a way to build hope and positive emotions. Remembering and using our personal strengths creates confidence that we can get through whatever comes our way.
  2. Practice gratitude. Research on gratitude shows that it is more effective than self-control, patience, or forgivingness in creating hope for the future. Try keeping a gratitude journal in which you list big and small things you’re grateful for each day. Or, at the end of every day, think back on three things you were grateful for. Families can do a gratitude practice together during meals, by going around the table and each sharing one thing you’re thankful for.
  3. Reframe negative thoughts. When you feel afraid or hopeless, try zeroing in on what’s scaring you and looking at it in a different way. For example, if you’re thinking, “I’ll never be able to go to college or get a job during a pandemic,” you could shift that to “It might be more difficult to go to college or get a job right now, so I’ll need to use my strengths to work toward overcoming those difficulties.” Or you might shift the thought “I’m never going to stop feeling anxious about everything that’s going on” to “It’s natural to be anxious right now, and there are things I can do to make it better.”
  4. Limit media exposure. Both news coverage and social media can have negative effects on hope and mental health. News tends to focus on the most frightening and sensational aspects of what’s happening, and it can make us more vulnerable to vicarious trauma. Social media can help young people feel more connected, but it can also increase feelings of anxiety and distress.
  5. Spend time with hopeful, optimistic people. According to the science of “emotional contagion,” when you surround yourself with people who are hopeful and positive, you’re more likely to feel that way yourself. Research shows that we can “catch” both positive and negative emotions from others, so choose your friends wisely!

In summary, hope and mental health are inextricably linked. And we can strengthen both by taking small, daily actions that will help us thrive even in the midst of uncertainty.


Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

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