Sustaining Hope in Uncertain Times
It’s easy in these difficult, uncertain times to lose hope. But allowing yourself to sink into a funk can affect your professional and personal lives. What’s more, there’s an alternative: a process that involves imagining a plausible positive future, identifying steps to achieve it, and viewing inevitable setbacks as inflection points when you can reset your course.
Hope is crucial for human flourishing but is a subject rarely addressed in business until the pandemic made it unavoidable. In times of great turbulence, hope can feel naïve — or worse, like a set-up for future disappointment. And yet, hope is essential to our satisfaction, motivation, health, and performance. When things look bleak, remaining hopeful is one of our toughest and most essential self-management tasks. It’s tough because it requires a delicate balance of accepting that we cannot know the future, while believing things will be better than the present. It’s essential because when hope is lost, so, too, is our will to endure and ultimately prevail.
With a pandemic heading into its third year, the ongoing war in Ukraine, the almost daily evidence of impending climate disaster, global supply chain disruption, and inflation, among other woes, sustaining hope has become more important than ever. We need it in our jobs as well as in our personal lives. The good news is that you can take actions to sustain hope and achieve the many documented benefits hopefulness confers.
It begins with understanding the nature of hope. Shane Lopez, who has studied hope extensively both as an academic and as a senior scientist at Gallup, defines hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with the belief that you have the power to make it so.” It is this combination of optimism and personal agency that differentiates hope from its lesser cousins like bravado or wishful thinking. When we play the lottery, we are engaged in wishful thinking. When we draw up a business plan and take it to the bank for a loan we are in the domain of hope.
At all stages of life, hope produces immense benefits. Hopeful students have better academic outcomes, hopeful adults report greater life satisfaction, and hopeful seniors have significantly lower rates of mortality. And in my experience coaching leaders in organizations of all sizes, I’ve found that hopefulness is an essential trait of high performers.
Bringing discipline to hope starts with conscious work to imagine a better future, continues with planning that supports that future, and is made resilient through an ability to accept that, despite our best efforts, the future is both unknown and unknowable. Here is what you can do to create and sustain hope not only in this time of great uncertainty and sadness.
Imagine a Plausible, Positive Future
Three years ago, one of the top environmental lawyers in the world was in a resilience seminar I was leading. In preparation, the class had completed an assessment that asked the participants to rate their agreement with the statement “the future will probably be better than things are right now.” As we were talking about the value of hope in fostering resilience, she said, “I can show you data that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the future will be worse than the present.” With tears in her eyes, she talked about her struggle to stay hopeful in a world moving irreversibly towards climate catastrophe.
If you cannot imagine a better future, hope is impossible. What we imagine impacts us emotionally and physically. Athletes experience meaningful benefits to their physical performance from repeatedly and vividly imagining themselves performing well. Conversely, when we repeatedly and vividly imagine a bleak future, it impacts our performance, mood, and even physiology. A lack of positive future imagery is associated with depression, and the intrusion of strong negative imagery is associated with PTSD. We pay an emotional and physical price for a future that may not even arrive.
So instead of fixating on a dismal future, consciously imagine plausible alternative futures for yourself that bring you energy and motivation instead of dread and anxiety.
First, write out what you are currently imagining about the future and the emotions these images provoke. Describe exactly what you are imagining (for example, “still working from my bedroom next year”) instead of generalities (like “working from home”). Specific images, not general ideas, have the greatest impact on our internal state. Often, we are not wholly conscious of the images that we are holding or the impact they are creating internally. Making them concrete and tangible is the first step, akin to the Stoic practice of negative visualization, in which vividly imagining worst-case scenarios robs them of their power.
Second, imagine things have gone well for you over the next two years and write a postcard to yourself from that future. Describe your life. What is going on in your work world? Personal world? The key question is: “Where will I be if things have gone well for me?” It needs to feel optimistic but realistic.
Third, stand in that future. Vividly imagine yourself in the future you have described. Imagine the conversations you are having with people around you. Imagine how you are feeling. Try to involve as many senses as you can in your imagery — the tactile sensations of hugging a loved one, the feel of a handshake to seal your promotion. Research shows that the more vivid our imagery is, the more directly it impacts our internal state.
Identify the Next Best Action
Hope also requires the formation of what researchers call “pathways thoughts” that foster a belief we can make the imagined future a reality. Imagination makes hope possible; planning makes it real.
When legendary mental performance coach Peter Jensen, who has worked with more than 100 Olympic medalists, starts working with a new athlete, he pulls out a blank sheet of paper. In the top right corner, he writes their goal — for example “qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games.” In the bottom left corner, he writes their current status — for example “fifth at Nationals.” He then draws a diagonal line from bottom left corner to the top right corner and, working with the athlete, starts to plot out their pathway on the timeline. Critical markers like “Olympic trials” and “National championships” go on first. They continue working backwards, until they arrive at a simple question: “What’s the next best step?”
You can take the same approach to your path at work and beyond. What is the pathway to the future you’ve imagined? What are the critical markers? And, most importantly, what is the next step? If you are having trouble identifying your next step, work your way through the following potential action areas:
Behaviors – Is there something I should do more, less, or with increased consistency?
Relationships – Is there a relationship I need to build, strengthen, or jettison?
Learning – Is there a skill or ability I should invest in developing?
Beliefs – Is there a belief I need to let go of or cultivate?
See Setbacks as Inflection Points, Not Defeat
The final component of hope — and the one that makes it resilient — is an ability to make peace with the fact that we cannot control or predict the future despite our vivid imagination and best laid plans. When things don’t go according to plan, cultivate the ability to see adversity as an inflection point rather than a reason to abandon hope.
In the improv game Fortunately, Unfortunately, one actor starts a story with the word fortunately. They might say something like: “Fortunately, I found a $100 bill on the ground.” Another actor then continues the story with unfortunately: “Unfortunately, when you bent down to retrieve it, you suffered a hernia.” And so on, back and forth.
The game is a useful reminder of the opportunity hidden inside adversity. Many of the most successful people I’ve worked with over the years point to moments of failure as critical catalysts in their eventual success.
As you move through your own game of Fortunately, Unfortunately, you should anticipate that things will not move neatly along the plan you have identified. When adversity hits, ask yourself how it might be an inflection point for you and what you can do to turn unfortunately to fortunately. Also ask what you’re learning from adversity that will serve you well in the future. Then let go of your original plan and start reimagining an alternative future.
When you can imagine a plausible future that is better than present, identify the pathway to that future and accept that things rarely go exactly according to plan, you will cultivate hope that is both useful and resilient.