What is hope? a psychological perspective

I recently noticed that I wrote my thoughts about hope in three blog posts in 2013, based on my own thoughts, experiences, and interpretation of my faith tradition (the Bible and Quaker history). It’s interesting reading back through my thoughts after spending last semester engaged with literature around hope in the fields of psychology, theology, and philosophy. At some point maybe I’ll go through and analyze those based on the literature around hope.

Today, I’m going to give you a brief overview of what the main psychological theorist thinks about hope. C.R. Snyder developed the psychology of hope, including a diagram of the relationship between the elements he thinks make up hope. In future posts, I’ll talk a little more about what hope is not, namely, an emotion, a character trait, or equivalent to optimism. For now, I’ll describe Snyder’s understanding of the cognitive process of hope as a baseline from which to develop language regarding the variables involved. According to Snyder’s Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, & Applications, “Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes” (Snyder, 2000, 8, see Fig. 1). Our perception of our capabilities is based on our interpretation of our history of successes and failures: in the past, have we experienced situations where we found pathways to get to our goals, and the motivation to follow those pathways through to completion of our goals? This motivation Snyder calls agency, and our perception of our own level of agency he calls self-efficacy. The value we place on the desired outcome also plays into the picture. We don’t really hope for things in which we don’t place much value—we just have a vague desire or wish for it. So, in order for the process to truly be termed “hope,” we have to place quite a bit of value in the outcome under consideration. Finally, we can’t hope for something that impossible or certain. If it’s impossible, we engage in wishing, while certainty doesn’t require hope because the outcome is known.

Figure 1: Snyder, “Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind,” Psychological Inquiry 13.4 (2002): 254.

To summarize, Snyder sees hope as a cognitive process in which we imagine a future goal, decide if it is valuable enough to us to pursue, discern whether pathways exist that might get us to our goal, evaluate our past history of successes and failures in goal attempts, and reflect on the level of agency or motivation we feel regarding our ability to see this hope through to eventual goal attainment.

Snyder developed inventories to test whether people are high hope or low hope. Throughout Snyder’s experience and research and the contributions of others using his model and inventories, hope consistently correlates with psychologically and physically healthier individuals. High hope individuals experience fewer injuries and a lower rate of depression, and generally hold more and higher goals. Studies also show that an individual’s level of hope can be increased through therapeutic intervention, so that is good news! Someone low in hope can engage in training to learn to be more hopeful.

Those high and low in hope tend to differ mainly in their reaction to failure, or what he calls “stressors” in the diagram above. High hope individuals often see failure as a setback on the way to eventual goal completion, and/or as an opportunity to learn from a mistake. Those low in hope tend to see failures as a confirmation of their negative assessments regarding their past history, agency, and self-efficacy, with a by-product of further lowering their self-esteem. High hopers, on the other hand, can eventually use their failures as self-esteem boosts when they do meet their goals, and they can look back on their tenacity and frequent re-starts with pride in their ability to stick with the problem until its completion.

I appreciate Snyder’s work to elucidate the concept of hope. I agree with him that hope is a process, rather than an emotion or character trait, and I find it extremely…hopeful…that individuals can increase their level of hope. Where his theory excels is in its ability to label the pieces that go into an individual’s experience of hope, and in its ability to aid clients dealing with depression, meaninglessness, or other psychological states in which they find it difficult to hope.

Where Snyder’s concept is lacking, however, is in the focus on the individual, or the therapist-client relationship. His theory does not account for hope that is generated through social interactions or hope gained from history beyond one’s own life experiences, and his theory fails to differentiate between hope and goal attainment. For those of us who hope in something or someone in a spiritual sense, hope as goal attainment does not explain the complete experience or rationale behind this type of hope. Those who experience extreme suffering can sometimes still exhibit hope, although they are not in control of pathways toward their very valuable goals. What accounts for this expression of hope, if we see hope solely from Snyder’s perspective? Also, Snyder’s theory does not sufficiently explain how to discern whether a goal is desirable or not in a social sense. Just because something is possible and an individual values it, does that mean s/he should hope for it and attempt to attain it? After all, Hitler had some pretty powerful goals and he found the agency and pathways to achieve many of those goals. Do these count as hopes? Is working toward goal attainment always an act of hope? Or is there something different that qualifies our experiences as hope?

To learn more about the psychology of hope:

Bernardo, Allan B. I. “Extending Hope Theory: Internal and External Locus of Trait Hope.” Personality and Individual Differences 49.8 (December 2010): 944–49.

Clayton, Susan, and Gene Myers. “The Psychology of Hope.” In Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature, First Edition., 198–206. Chichister, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Du, Hongfei, Allan B. I. Bernardo, and Susanna S. Yeung. “Locus-of-Hope and Life Satisfaction: The Mediating Roles of Personal Self-Esteem and Relational Self-Esteem.” Personality and Individual Differences 83 (September 2015): 228–33.

Feldman, David B., and C. R. Snyder. “Hope and the Meaningful Life: Theoretical and Empirical Associations Between Goal-Directed Thinking and Life Meaning.” Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 24.3 (May 2005): 401–21.

Gomez, Rapson, Suzanne McLaren, Mersey Sharp, Cara Smith, Kate Hearn, and Leah Turner. “Evaluation of the Bifactor Structure of the Dispositional Hope Scale.” Journal of Personality Assessment 97.2 (March 2015): 191–99.

Lopez, Shane J., C. R. Snyder, and Jennifer Teramoto Pedrotti, eds. “Hope: Many Definitions, Many Measures.” In Positive Psychological Assessment:  A Handbook of Models and Measures (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003): 91–106.

Lopez, Shane J., and C.R. Snyder, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd edition (Oxford Handbooks Online, 2012). http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com.antioch.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195187243.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195187243.

Magaletta, Philip R., and J. M. Oliver. “The Hope Construct, Will, and Ways: Their Relations with Self-Efficacy, Optimism, and General Well-Being.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 55.5 (May 1999): 539–51.

Magaletta, Philip Rocco. “Exploring the Relation among Hope, Optimism, and Self-Efficacy: Validation of the Will and Ways Dimensions of Hope,” Ph.D. dissertation (Saint Louis University, 1996).

Martin-Krumm, Charles, Yann Delas, Marc-André Lafrenière, Fabien Fenouillet, and Shane J. Lopez. “The Structure of the State Hope Scale.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 10.3 (May 2015): 272–81.

May, Emily, Bronwyn Hunter, Joseph Ferrari, Nicole Noel, and Leonard Jason. “Hope and Abstinence Self-Efficacy: Positive Predictors of Negative Affect in Substance Abuse Recovery.” Community Mental Health Journal 51.6 (August 2015): 695–700.

Ong, Anthony D., Lisa M. Edwards, and C. S. Bergeman. “Hope as a Source of Resilience in Later Adulthood.” Personality and Individual Differences 41.7 (November 2006): 1263–73.

Snyder, C. R., Cheri Harris, John R. Anderson, Sharon A. Holleran, Lori M. Irving, Sandra Sigmon, Lauren Yoshinobu, June Gibb, Charyle Langelle, and Pat Harney. “The Will and the Ways: Development and Validation of an Individual-Differences Measure of Hope.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 60.4 (April 1991): 570–85.

Snyder, C. R., Susie C. Sympson, Florence C. Ybasco, Tyrone F. Borders, Michael A. Babyak, and Raymond L. Higgins. “Development and Validation of the State Hope Scale.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 70.2 (February 1996): 321–35.

Snyder, C. R. “Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Nurturing Hope.” Journal of Counseling & Development 73.3 (1995): 355–60.

Snyder, C.R. Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications, EBook Academic Collection (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 2000).

Snyder, C. R. “Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind.” Psychological Inquiry 13.4 (October 2002): 249–75.

Snyder, C. R. “Hope and Depression: A Light in the Darkness.” Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 23.3 (June 2004): 347–51.

Valle, Michael F., E. Scott Huebner, and Shannon M. Suldo. “An Analysis of Hope as a Psychological Strength.” Journal of School Psychology, Motivation, 44.5 (October 2006): 393–406.

Wong, Shyh Shin, and Timothy Lim. “Hope versus Optimism in Singaporean Adolescents: Contributions to Depression and Life Satisfaction.” Personality and Individual Differences 46.5–6 (April 2009): 648–52.

Wright, Cheryl, Helen Dunbar-Krige, and Gert van der Westhuizen. “Reconceptualising Hope within the Context of Vulnerability in South Africa.” Journal of Psychology in Africa (Routledge) 25.5 (October 2015): 454–60.

Zimmerman, Marc A. “Toward a Theory of Learned Hopefulness: A Structural Model Analysis of Participation and Empowerment.” Journal of Research in Personality 24.1 (1990): 71–86.


I embarked on my journey toward a PhD in environmental studies in the summer of 2014. With a background in psychology and theology, this academic trajectory perhaps does not look like a straight line, but to me it makes perfect sense. I grew up hearing stories of Quaker ministers who stood up courageously for the social justice causes of their day, based in love of God and neighbor, and I wondered what they would do if they lived in my time. While I care about many issues, I felt drawn to working on something in which I am directly complicit. Rather than going to another country to intervene in their conflicts, I recognized that my own culture and way of life contributes to plenty of problems, and I can focus on my own shortcomings rather than trying to take the proverbial speck out of my neighbor’s eye. The way we treat our planet came into ever-increasing focus in my own life as my area of passion, as well as the area that needs our most immediate attention in this particular historic time. It represents the place where my greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect, to paraphrase Frederick Beuchner (Wishful Thinking). My goal is two-fold: to live in a way that speaks to what it means to be a human being following the Creator in the world today, which I believe must include a sense of integration into the network of creation in a way that is sustainable and just, and to participate in a dynamic community of faith that inspires courage and meaning for lived praxis of God’s love.

Therefore, my questions regarding my PhD work go something like this: What do theologians and people of faith have to offer to the environmental conversation? And what can theologians and people of faith learn from those working on environmental issues?

A piece of the puzzle came to me last summer: hope. Those involved in the environmental movement often have a difficult time hoping that their environmental actions can make a difference. Those in faith communities tend to express hope in something, albeit often something ethereal or other-wordly. But the more I got thinking about the concept of hope, the more it seemed like an important place to focus my research and writing. Our culture expresses a marked lack of hope, in my experience.

Question upon question came to my mind, including the following:

  • What is hope? Is it a feeling, a choice, a trajectory, a character trait?
  • Where does it come from?
  • What is the difference between hope and optimism?
  • Is hope something people have or don’t have, or something that can be learned?
  • What is the role of community in hope?
  • Is hope possible in a situation of suffering?
  • Is hope rational?
  • What happens when we hope and the thing we’re hoping for doesn’t come to pass?
  • Is it better to hope, or not to hope and not to feel let down?
  • What is a stronger motivator: hope, fear, or some other characteristic or emotion?
  • In the environmental movement, what would hope look like and how could we encourage people to hope?
  • If we are able to encourage more people to hope about our future, environmentally speaking, what might be the outcomes?

Last semester, I took two courses: Conservation Psychology and Ecotheology & Environmental Ethics. Through these courses I studied, among other things, the psychology of hope and meaning, theology of hope, political and liberation theology, and liberation pedagogy, in which field I learned about critical hope. I will share my journey of working through these concepts and thinking through what my dissertation will look like here, as well as sharing thoughts and insights about my attempts to enact my environmental concerns in ways consistent with my faith.