The Science of Hope: 3 Research-Backed Components

Science of hope. Illustration of woman with a bird in front of her face.

Why do we need hope in recovery?

It’s no news that recovery from an eating disorder doesn’t happen overnight. Recovery is a journey, a process. It’s where you go from one point (living with an eating disorder) to where you want to be (recovered). This process is made up of many different steps, big and small, and many different decisions, big and small. Healing is not a passive experience. In order for you to actually get to where you want to be, you need to make decisions that are going to help you get there. 

But what is one thing we need in order to go get from where we are now to where we want to be next? It’s hope. 

Dr. C.R. Snyder, psychologist and author of the book, The Psychology of Hope, defined hope as 

Hope is the sum of the mental willpower and waypower that you have for your goals.

Hope, according to this definition, has 3 components: goals, willpower, and waypower. Let’s break those down a little further.

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1: Goals

First, you need to have goals. You need to have a target. You need to have something you want to aim toward in life and it needs to be challenging and doable. So what do you want to accomplish in your life? This could be anything such as recovery from an eating disorder, a certain career, or having a family. Anything starts with a goal. Hope starts with a goal.

2. Personal Agency

Second, you need to have personal agency. It’s that spark of belief in yourself and your ability to bring your goal to life. Dr. C.R. Snyder says “[Personal agency] is the driving force in hopeful thinking. It is the sense of mental energy that propels the person toward the goal. Willpower, as I use this term, is a reservoir of determination and commitment that we can call on to help move us in the direction of the goal to which we are attending at any given moment.”

Often times this is where people hold themselves back the most when they got stuck worrying about whether they can actually do it. They can. You can. It starts with believing you do. So every time you’re feeling hopeless, remind yourself that you can do what’s necessary to achieve your goal.

3. Multiple Pathways

Then, you need to have what Dr. C.R. Snyeder calls Waypower. You need to have that clear goal plus that spark of “I can do this!” AND you need to know that you will run into obstacles that will require you to create multiple alternative ways to achieve your goals. That’s “Waypower.”

According to Dr. C.R. Snyder, Waypower reflects the mental plans or road maps that guide hopeful thought. Waypower is a mental capacity we can call on to find one or more effective ways to reach our goals. The perception that one can engage in planful thought is therefore essential for waypower thinking.”

In other words, you got your goal and you believe that you can achieve that goal. You know that you will run into doubt and obstacles but you will choose to keep going. That’s waypower in action.

Having hope that recovery is possible

So, again, Hope has three components: Goals + Personal Agency + Multiple Pathways. You need to know what you want, believe you can get it, and be willing to explore different ways to get from here to there. You have probably heard the old saying “if there is a will, there is a way”. Well to really get into a state of hope, you need to have a meaningful goal in addition to your will and multiple ways.

Let’s do a quick inventory. What’s an important meaningful, challenging, and doable goal for you right now? For example, your recovery. Whatever it is write that down. Now, do you believe you can achieve it? How’s your ‘personal agency’? The belief that you can make your dream happen?

According to Dr. Snyder, “One common low [personal agency] reaction to impediments involves a surprise thought such as, oh my god this can’t be happening! This sort of thought propels the person into an aversive emotional turmoil. If you find yourself constantly being surprised by the barriers you encounter, realize that life throws impediments in all of our paths. So, don’t wallow in self-pity and assume that you alone come on such obstacles.”

Obstacles can be surprising and can make you want to give up. This is a common reaction to a relapse. Working with a treatment team can help you stay on track.

Obstacles are part of the process

It’s important to remember in these times that you are not alone. You’re not the only person to suffer a relapse. On the path to a challenging yet doable goal we WILL (!) face obstacles. Period. That’s a GIVEN.

Expect the obstacles. See them as indicators—not signs that something’s WRONG but signs that something’s RIGHT. Specifically, that you are out of your comfort zone and getting better. This is where you can practice your personal agency and staying power by seeing that there are multiple pathways to achieve your goal. Perhaps you came up with one way to achieve your goal but found it didn’t work. Therefore, you feel scared to come up with other ways to achieve that goal. This is a point where you can lie on the ground defeated or you can rise up. You need to believe in your power to generate one or more routes to your goals.

When recovery gets tough, stay hopeful and keep going, no matter how many times you feel like you can’t.

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