Keeping Hope Alive … For Good Mental Health

SAFMH News Room

Having just come up for air after the COVID-19 pandemic, our country finds itself yet again in the middle of another serious crisis; one that is again putting us as individuals, our livelihoods and our economy at risk, while again taking a considerable mental toll on us. After several weeks of relentless and seemingly-never-ending loadshedding, along with the ever-increasing costs of living, soaring temperatures [in Gauteng at least], along with all the other socio-economic problems the people of South Africa grapple with on a regular basis, I get the sense that, wherever I go and whomever I speak to, people are just a little bit more frustrated than usual; a little bit more irritated, tired and at the end of their proverbial tethers. Add to that that we’re still roughly two months away from that well-deserved Christmas break while many of us are already starting to feel the increasing gnaws of exhaustion [possibly even burn-out], and it really is no wonder that we’re all perhaps feeling just a little bit more edgy that normal. Or perhaps even hopeless.

So where do we turn to in these times? Different people have different support structures and ways to help them cope and blow off steam. But the one thing most of us have in common, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religious orientation or favourite hobby, is the need for hope. So what is hope, and what can it give us when, often in the most difficult of times, it may feel like it is evading us altogether?

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”, while the American Psychological Association tells us that “to have hope feels good, but it is also good for you”. Well-known hope researcher C. R. Snyder stated that ‘hope’ implies that there exists a possibility for a better future, and that it often shows up at the worst of times, when things are difficult to help keep us going. Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology researcher, added that if during these challenging times we can see even the faintest glimmer of something better, then hope is able to “open us up” and help move us towards something more positive. That when we have hope for the future, it can help build our resilience, which is the ability to solider through difficult times and recover faster after experiencing hurdles in our lives. Also, when we have hope, it can help us avoid or limit the effects that trauma, depression and anxiety may have on us.

It is also important to note what hope is not. Hope is not an exercise in passive wish-making or being in denial. Hope does not ignore the real challenges before us, the details of [for example] a health condition or financial problems. It does not ignore trouble, make excuses, or deny actual dangers we may be facing. And hope is not about pretending. Rather, hope is having an active approach to one’s life, which arises when there is something we want, and we have a clear goal in mind for ourselves. Also, even though we may be facing challenges, we will develop a plan to help us to move closer to getting to where we wish to be. Hope is about “showing up” and working through the difficult times, believing that it is possible for us to get to something better. Ultimately, hope is about being resilient.

Snyder and colleagues formulated what is known as “hope theory”, which states that hope provides us with the determination, will, and the sense of empowerment that enable us to attain our goals. A large amount of research has also illustrated the power hope has to support our wellbeing – even more so than optimism or self-efficacy (the beliefs in your own abilities). Research has shown that people who have hope are more likely to achieve their personal goals, tend to do better academically, pursue healthier lifestyles, cope with, and recover better from illnesses, have higher levels of life satisfaction, and generally feel a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.

One study found that having hope was a significantly strong predictor of people having good mental health. Health promotion strategies frequently focus on alleviating or preventing mental illness as attempts to indirectly promote mental health, but promoting hope might be a better strategy. Another study found content on hope is important to include in mental health literacy programmes (along with information on mental health, mental illness and recovery). This is because hope can be an important catalyst for aiding in the recovery from specific mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, trauma-related disorders, and suicidal ideation.

For many people living with mental illness, hope underpins the recovery* process since recovery is dependent on the want to get better, and hope is the pathway through which this happens. Hope can catalyse change and enable the other factors needed for recovery (e.g. self-esteem and increased knowledge).  Hope is equally important as part of recovery from mental illness as it is in recovery from physical illness. The only discernible difference is that with mental illness, the so-called ‘end point’ may be somewhat more difficult to envisage because one’s mental state is not fixed and that states of mind fluctuate. We must therefore work even harder to instill hope in persons with mental illness because hope offers a means through which a better future may be perceived and achieved.

So what can we do to help ourselves, and others, develop a stronger sense of hope? Here are a few tips:

  • Seek awe and inspiration – research shows if we are deeply moved by something, to the degree that we struggle to find the words to talk about it, we are experiencing ‘awe’. This helps to create meaning and positive feelings, which in turn helps us to develop a sense of hopefulness, which can help us moving forward with our lives. Experiencing awe can remind us of the vastness of things, find connections in deeper ways and help us to slow down think about what is important to us. You might feel this by watching the ocean or listening to your favourite choir.
  • Re-identify goals – by maintaining a clear vision about what is important to us, and what we want to achieve can help develop hope. When we are reminded of our major goals and the things that motivate us to get up in the morning, we can re-connect with our deeper values. If this happens, we are more likely to persist because the process [or choice of lifestyle] that arises from living our lives closer to our values can help us succeed, even if faced with challenges.
  • Recognise setbacks and moving through them – hope can be strengthened tremendously when you push through a setback. The next time you are faced with a setback, try to pay attention to what the challenge might offer you; is it an opportunity for growth, or perhaps a chance to learn something that can help you attain your goals? Once you’ve paused to think about this, proceed to move through the challenge facing you.

In times like these, we can all probably do with focusing a bit more on developing hope, and using it to get through the difficult times we are facing individually and collectively. Tough times are inevitable. You might find yourself in one now. Hope enables us to keep going, despite challenges. That is a powerful feeling. It moves us forward rather than keeping us stuck in despair. Let’s keep working to build hope in our lives and help those around us to do the same in theirs.

By Leon de Beer, Deputy Director, SA Federation for Mental Health

* Recovery can be seen as an ongoing, personal process, aimed at helping the individual live a satisfying life despite challenges that they may experience due to their condition.

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