4 Practices for Hopefulness in the New Year

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

“Hope is belief in the plausibility of the possible, not only the necessity of the probable.” - Moses Maimonides

Hope believes that what is probable is not inevitable. 

David beats Goliath. 

The underdog wins. 

Hope accompanies us in the doctor’s office and out of it, hanging on every shred of statistics that help us believe it’s going to be okay even when the odds are stacked against us. 

We hold on to hope that our loved one will return from war, from an affair, from their depression. 

Hope is what gets us out of bed the morning after a really tough day. 

But where does hope come from—and how do we practice it?

1. Acknowledge the Light & the Dark

Hope is not blind optimism nor is it blissful ignorance. It’s more complex. When we come up against a dark wall, hope is the light that shines through its cracks. Hope comes from acknowledging that the darkness and the light are intertwined and, in most cases, inseparable. Practicing hope requires observing life’s dualities: the end and the beginning are both possible and they’re often happening simultaneously. 

Stress researcher Elissa Epel calls hope the foundation of stress resilience. In parts of her new book, “The Stress Prescription,” she looks at hope through the lens of climate crisis specifically. She notes that, today, “to be alive means we will experience heartache and suffering for the changes and losses in our ecosystem, [and] at the same time we can still appreciate and experience awe in the beauty of nature, the preciousness of life.”

“Hope enables us to face loss and pain,” Epel says, “and to build a better future.” This mentality can be applied to many of our current dilemmas, from war, illness, and famine, to relational issues, existential dread, and our very real mental health crisis. When hopelessness creeps in, the practice here is to try to observe those thoughts and feelings without succumbing to them—and to seek hope in the situation or find it elsewhere. When you're heartbroken, surround yourself with people who remind you that you’re worthy and loved. When your child is bawling, hold them tight, tell them it’s okay to be sad and they’re not alone. After doom scrolling climate crisis headlines, please go take a walk outside. Be present with all that is worth saving. Acknowledge the darkness. Remember the light and find it again and again.  

2. Make a Hopefulness Plan

“Hope is the alchemy that turns a life around,” says psychotherapist and grief expert Julia Samuel. “It isn’t just a feeling; it is a realistic plan—and a plan B supported by the belief that you can make it happen.” The challenge, of course, is actually doing the plan. 

The idea of making a hopefulness plan needn’t overwhelm you. You don’t need to draw a big map of how you’re going to fix your whole life. Samuel says to focus on one hope at a time. Set yourself up in a cozy setting, take a few deep breaths, and write down one issue with which you are grappling. In this example, let’s use “I’m lonely.” 

Next, write a statement of hope connected to the issue. “I hope to make friends.” Picture what making friends could look and feel like. What are you doing together in this picture? What is one aspect of this picture you can focus on and make a plan around? Perhaps in your picture, you are singing with people or playing a sport or quietly making art side by side. What would you need to do to make this picture a reality? Samuel suggests joining a free, local choir with weekly rehearsals. You could join a kickball team or a tennis club. You could sign yourself up for ceramics classes. Find the action in the picture and make it real.

Closing your eyes and envisioning a picture of hope—full of the colors, sounds, textures, and feelings that you want to experience—directly creates the uplifting feeling you desire. But turning that picture into a decision, and turning that decision into a plan, turns hope into a practice.

3. Create a Record of Resilience

Making a Hopefulness Plan can inspire us to rise to the occasion and see that plan through, but it also requires flexibility when things don’t go exactly as we hoped they would. It’s important to remember that you have struggled and faced disappointment and hurt before and have come out on the other side. Spend some time collecting and reflecting on those instances. 

Hephzibah Kaplan, director of the London Art Therapy Centre, emphasizes the connection between hope and our memories of having survived. She draws a contrast between passive hope and active hope. “Passive hope is without substance, drive, or depth,” she says. “It is empty. It has little memory. It is dreaming without direction, intention, or motivation, and is full of failures.” Active hope, on the other hand, “is a can-do attitude with self-belief in one’s resources—including one’s experiences overcoming adversity and surviving risks.”

Look back at what you have survived and write it down. Now, look even further back. Mine the stories of adversity and survival in your family and community. Psychologist and trauma expert, Jack Saul, highlights that collective trauma requires collective healing. He often asks people to share stories of resilience that have been passed down from generation to generation. Make a record of these stories that you can return to when you need an extra shot of hope. There’s nothing like a good dose of intergenerational survival and revival to remind us that we, too, will get through this. As a matter of fact, it’s probably the reason we’re here.

4. Use your Gifts to Help Others

The research is rather unanimous: one of the most powerful antidepressants and sources of hope and purpose is to do good for others. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin calls it “do good, feel good!” Depending on your skillset, she suggests helping a non-profit tackle a big project, teaching a child to ride a bike, volunteering at a food bank, or mentoring someone at work or in your community. If those kinds of actions seem too overwhelming, she recommends picking up trash from the sidewalk or watching an online first-aid training video. 

In his column for The Atlantic, Harvard business professor and host of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast, Arthur C. Brooks, shares his research about the differences between optimism and hope. But he also lays out a plan for “How to Be More Hopeful,” as the headline of his column promises. After “imagine a better future, and detail what makes it so,” he recommends “envisioning yourself taking action,” and finally “act.” He suggests “volunteering at a soup kitchen one day a week, advocating for better policies in your city’s government, or making the plight of people experiencing homelessness more visible in your community. Avoid illusions of being the invincible savior,” he warns. “Instead, imagine helping one real person, convincing one policy maker, or increasing the compassion of one fellow citizen.” 

Or, you could start even closer to home. Do you have a family member or friend struggling? Would you know if they were? Your hopeful action could be a compassionate check in. You could even combine these ideas: “I was just thinking about you and I hope you’re doing well. Either way, I’m here. I’m looking to do some volunteer work and wondering if you’d like to join me. There are lots of options and I’d love to “do good/feel good” together. Sending you love.”

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