A Cognitive Strategy for Creating Hope in Your Life

“Hopelessness is a really toxic and dangerous state.” Cory Booker

Hopelessness will destroy you from the inside out. It will drain your energy, sap your motivation, and eventually cause you to despair of life itself.

Unfortunately, hopelessness is a widespread emotional state that many are suffering from today.

Perhaps you’re one of them.

The precursor to hopelessness is helplessness. Many feel that they have no power to change their adverse circumstances.

It’s hopeless.

Before I continue, here’s a disclaimer:

My goal is neither to trivialize life’s complexities nor minimize tragedy. I also don’t want to push you into shortcutting any grieving or waiting process that may be an important part of your emotional health journey. And as a personal disclaimer,  my ultimate source of hope is and has always been my faith in Christ. 

But since this post is not about faith but about pragmatism, my aim is to pass along a concept that I believe will move you from passively waiting for hope to come, to actively generating it in your life. 

Research suggests this is entirely possible.


Many define hope as a combination of self-efficacy and optimism.

  • Self-efficacy refers to your belief that you can master a domain.
  • Optimism refers to a general expectation that it’ll all just “be all right.”

But research of positive psychologist Charles Snyder reveals that “hope”  can mean something else altogether.

In Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Scott Barry Kaufman explains.

In 1991, positive psychologist Charles Snyder and colleagues came up with “hope theory.”

According to their theory, hope consists of agency and pathways.

The person who has hope has the will and determination to achieve goals and a set of various strategies at their disposal to reach their goals.

In other words, hope emerges in someone’s life when they exercise control over their situation by:

  1. Creating a strategy
  2. Pursuing said strategy with determination

How does this play out in real life?

In a previous post , related the story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman’s pursuit of achieving his prodigious goal of living and working in East Africa.

Angela Duckworth relates the story in, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.    

Gettleman stated, “Once I learned more about being a journalist and how that could get me back to Africa…I set out a very deliberate path that was possible, because the journalism industry was very hierarchical, and it was clear how to get from A to B to C to D, et cetera.”

  • Step A was writing for Oxford’s student newspaper, Cherwell.
  • Step B was a summer internship at a small paper in Wisconsin.
  • Step C was the St. Petersburg Times in Florida on the Metro beat.
  • Step D was the Los Angeles Times.
  • Step E was the New York Times as a national correspondent in Atlanta.
  • Step F was being sent overseas to cover war stories, and in 2006 – just over a decade since he’d set himself the goal – he finally reached it.
  • Step G: becoming the New York Times’ East Africa bureau chief.

Upon realizing that achieving his goal would take a decade of sacrifice, Gettleman could’ve thrown up his hands and quit.

Like many, he could’ve helplessly settled for a career path that was less invigorating and more easily attainable.  

Instead, he mapped out a strategy and pursued it with determination.

He created his own hope.

Credit – William Iven – Unsplash

What about you?

Is there a situation in your life that you’ve deemed to be hopeless?

Take a closer look and evaluate whether or not you are truly helpless. Or is there something…anything you can do to swing the power pendulum in your direction?  

If so, don’t waste your energy trying to positive-talk yourself into a heightened state of self-efficacy. Don’t hype yourself up into a blind- optimism frenzy.  

These well-intentioned practices often lead to nothing more than positive fantasizing.

Instead, get out a sheet of paper and start creating a strategy.  Start creating hope.


  • Are you $100K in debt?

Write down what you need to do first…second…third…fifteenth.  


  • Do you want to move to a different city?

Write down what has to happen in order for you to get there. Then, create a realistic arrival date.


  • What dream-goal seems totally out of reach?

Your path to achievement might not be as clear-cut as Gettleman’s but come as close as you can to outlining the steps.

I can’t overstate the importance of refusing the temptation to exaggerate the analysis in your favor. Counterintuitive though it may be, the more brutally honest you are, the more hopeful you will become.

After completing this exercise, research says you will have begun to feel more hopeful.

According to Hope Theory, emotions follow cognitions, not the other way around.” (Kaufman)

Seth Godin says it like this, “We don’t take action because we believe. We believe because we take action.”


Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Disappointment is sure to happen. Obstacles will arise that seem insurmountable. Tragedy may strike.

Those things are out of your control.

But hopelessness…you’ve got a say-so in that.  

Perhaps you’ve been guilty of accepting defeat too quickly in certain areas of your life.

If this is the case, I challenge you to get out of the doldrums of apathy, drag yourself to your desk, and start drawing up a hope strategy.

One ray at a time.

After all, what can it hurt?


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