Mind-Body-Mood Advisor: How to Grow Your Own Hope

Sometimes it's hard to be hopeful—and that's when hope will do you the greatest good.

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD September 14, 2009

Hope can be contagious, if you spend time with positive people.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Lying in her hospital bed, Anita grasped the pen tightly in her left hand as her right arm hung limply at her side. “I am going to walk again,” she wrote. Three days after suffering a massive stroke, Anita was frightened and sad, yet determined. She learned from her neurologist that some of her function might come back on its own, but that much of it would depend on her own persistence and hard work over the next several months. Enthusiastic and hopeful by nature, she put her heart into the grueling work of physical and speech therapy. Over the next six months she regained her ability to walk, with a limp, to talk, slowly and with much effort, and to move her right arm again. Anita’s positive attitude was a vital part of her recovery. Like other resilient people, she was able to tap into an inner source of positive emotion and belief. Such thinking provides resilient people with a source of energy to vigorously confront the challenges they face. One word for that energy source is "hope."

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Twenty-one years after finding hope that helped her recover from her stroke, at 80 years old, Anita continues to work relentlessly to maintain her abilities. She works out on a stationary bike for 60 minutes five days a week, attends Bible and history classes, reads voraciously, and plays mah-jongg with friends. She looks forward to each day with enthusiasm. I should know, because Anita is my mother.

THE DETAILS: Recent scientific research is discovering that Anita’s experience is far from unique. Finding hope and using it to fuel a positive attitude seems to be closely linked to persevering through a health crisis. In a study released just last week, a team of researchers at McGill University and the University of Toronto reported that stroke patients who were most apathetic had the lowest rates of recovery. This finding supports research published last year on 823 stroke patients at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. In that study, the stroke patients who expressed the highest levels of positive emotion recovered more fully than their more apathetic and pessimistic counterparts. When confronted with a massive challenge such as disability or a medical crisis, resilient people are not immune to feelings of anger, sadness, or grief. In fact, they often experience such painful feelings quite strongly. But they also possess a reservoir of hope and enthusiasm that energizes them to tackle the hard work of recovery.

WHAT IT MEANS: Some people are more naturally hopeful than others, of course. Enthusiasm and optimism are aspects of temperament that are inborn. But if finding hope comes easier to some of us, it's a skill we can all learn. By training yourself in constructive ways of thinking and acting, you can nourish the capacity for hope and enthusiasm that gets resilient people through a crisis. Here's what you can do to strengthen your capacity for hope:

• Self-generate positive feelings. One of the most powerful ways to deepen your reservoir of positive feeling is to deliberately generate it from within. Take a moment to breathe deeply and think of something in your life that brings a feeling of joy, love, or appreciation. Feel that feeling filling up your heart and extending out beyond yourself like a warm glow. By taking time to tap into this experience a few times each day you can strengthen your ability to self-generate positive feelings when you need them most. Taking five or 10 minutes to do this in the morning can help you to set a positive tone for the rest of the day.

• Get moving. Regular physical exercise, especially exercise that you enjoy, helps you to cultivate enthusiasm and a positive mood. Engaging in a consistent exercise routine affirms your power to enhance your health and your sense of well-being. You'll not only feel better day-to-day, you'll also be physically and mentally stronger should you have to weather a crisis.

• Seek out and embrace challenges. Challenge yourself to learn new skills, travel to new places and encounter new experiences. Learn a new language or computer program, start a new project at home or at work, join a new social group. By purposely stepping out of your comfort zone, you strengthen your capacity to handle the unfamiliar and stay hopeful when the going gets tough. Like strengthening a muscle, the more you challenge yourself, the more resilient you become.

• Clear the weeds that are choking your positivity. When you notice yourself thinking pessimistic, cynical, or self-critical thoughts, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. See if you can look at the situation from a different perspective that is kinder to you and allows for a more constructive way of handling the situation. Get into the habit of doing this, and it will help you fend off the despair that we all feel in our darkest hours.

• Spend time connecting with positive people. Happiness and depression are both contagious. Which would you rather catch? I’m not suggesting you abandon friends who tend to be negative or are going through a difficult time (maybe they can catch some positive feelings from you). But I am suggesting that you will feel more enthusiastic spending time and being close with people whose energy and outlook are positive. Include those people in your plans, especially when your own energy and positivity are flagging.

Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.