What is hopeful thinking?

Author: Dr. Eve Miller
November 24, 2020

What is hopeful thinking?


When you think about your future, where do your thoughts go? 

  • If you have the time, you may want to try this exercise before reading on:
    • Take 10-15 minutes to write down what comes to your mind when you think about your future. Don’t censor yourself, or overthink it.  Just write. 

When the celebrated hope researcher Shane Lopez tried this experiment for a week, he found he had three categories of thought about his future.

  1. Fantasizing: These are thoughts that are entertaining and fun, like the vacation you want to take, the place you want to retire, the famous person you want to meet, and so on. Dr. Lopez explained that you can recognize these thoughts because they often give us a quick emotional boost, which is sometimes followed by a low. 
  2. Dwelling: These thoughts hyperfocus on the bad things that may be a part of our future.  These are things like paying bills, getting laid off, and not being able to retire. These thoughts make us anxious or sad. 
  3. Hope aka where things get interesting: Hopeful thoughts sit between fantasizing and dwelling.  They make you feel excited about your future, while also acknowledging the challenges that must be overcome to reach that future. Dr. Lopez says that unlike the other two categories of thought, hopeful thinking inspired him to take action, to make a plan, and to move it forward. That’s the power of hope.

The father of hope research, Dr. Rick Synder, had a powerful way to express hopeful thinking about the future:
“You can get there from here.” 

Hopeful people do not live in an alternate reality that is removed from pandemics, trauma, and barriers of all kinds that litter their path.  Instead, hopeful people make the choice to believe their future will be better than the present and believe that they have the power within themselves to make it so. 

If you do not feel hopeful, it is perfectly understandable. The actions steps below may help, but recognize that we are living through incredibly challenging times.  Give yourself grace, be sure to seek out professional and medical support if you feel that you would benefit from it, and return to these exercises when the time is right. 

Action Steps

  • Revisit Dr. Snyder’s quote when you are struggling to feel hopeful, and spend some time analyzing what it means to you.
  • Take the time to write about your future for 15 minutes and then ask yourself three questions:
    • What is the “there” that inspires you to action? 
    • Where is the “here” you are starting from? 
    • How do you get from “here” to “there”?

Featured researcher Shane Lopez, Making Hope Happen

Lopez, S. J. (2013). Making Hope Happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. Simon and Schuster.


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