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Learned Hopefulness: The Key to a Successful Life

Oct. 31, 2022 Psychology Today

If you want to be successful in life, learned hopefulness is the key. This concept refers to the ability to learn from past experiences and use that knowledge to maintain hope for the future. It’s about optimism that things will improve, even when they seem tough. Learned hopefulness is essential for anyone who wants to achieve their goals. It’s what allows you to keep going when you encounter setbacks and gives you the strength to continue fighting for what you believe in. If you want to be successful, start by learning how to be hopeful.

When you have learned hopelessness, you realize that you have the power to shape your own future. You understand that no matter what might happen in the world around you, you have the ability to make things happen for yourself. You know that if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen. This belief gives you the strength to keep going when things are tough and helps you stay focused on your goals, even when it would be easy to give up. This isn’t just a motivational pitch—it is the result of understanding the new science of hope. The findings point to two inescapable truths: Hope is essential—and teachable.

It’s a skill that will help you achieve your goals and make your dreams a reality. It’s a mindset that allows us to maintain our hope and motivation, even when things are tough. An old saying goes, “if you want something to happen, make it happen.” While there’s certainly truth to that, it’s not the whole story. The reality is that much of what happens in life is out of our control. Learned hopefulness is believing that we can control our immediate future and destiny—even when circumstances make it seem otherwise.

Learned hopefulness is based on a new finding in brain science. The two researchers who originally coined the term learned helplessness, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, back in the ’60s and ’70s—revealed new findings from their work 50 years later, showing their original research was wrong.

Once they were able to use all the developments in brain science and biochemistry, they discovered that when we are confronted with an ongoing difficulty, setback, or disappointment, we don’t look backward to unlearn what happened. The brain looks forward to gain control.

These new discoveries explain how bad events cause us to be anxious and passive—by default. We are evolutionarily programmed to shut down when something bad and prolonged happens. We become passive because evolution has provided us with a switch that shuts us down to save our energy when the situation or circumstance seems bad. To get out of it, the brain assesses when it is okay to use our energy to make a change and make hope happen.

What this means for hope is that our very ability to detect and expect control in the future will pull us out of a slump. Focusing on what can be done in the future rather than on what happened in the past creates hope. It is the expectation of a better future that matters most. For more information on this, you can check out this post at Infijoy.

This has direct implications for where hope comes from and how to learn how to use it. How well we envision what is yet to come will determine our motivation. Focusing on what’s happened in the past keeps us sitting in the dark. When we concentrate on future possibilities, we can stand in the light. The pathway in the brain discovered by Maier and Seligman regulating this future forecasting is called, appropriately enough, the hope circuit. The question is: How can you develop learned hopefulness? There are three steps.

1. Become aware. Hope is the only positive emotion that requires negativity or uncertainty to be activated. We don’t need hope if everything is all right. That said, the most important thing we can do when something negative or uncertain happens is to pause. Rather than let ourselves be hijacked by emotion, which typically causes our brain and then body to have a threat response—pausing gives you a moment to become more aware of the situation. What am I feeling? What is happening? This might seem small, but pausing gives you immediate self-control and self-regulation. The key to being successful is not to let circumstances dictate your response. Pausing assures you are giving a thoughtful response rather than a reflexive reaction.

2. Make an assessment. Following a pause, the next step is to look and assess the situation and ask yourself what it is that needs to be done—and what you have the resources, ability, and motivation to do. You may not be able to control everything to make the change, but figuring out what you believe you can do will make the difference. The strength of belief will determine the degree to which you have hope.

3. Act. In my book Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression, the main point of the exercises and examples is to demonstrate that hope is a verb. Pausing to ask yourself what’s happening, figuring out what needs to be done and what you believe you can do are great beginnings. But you have to act—you have to do something to test out your belief that you have control. If it works—then you have made a change that moves the situation forward. If it doesn’t, it is time to pause again and recalculate and repeat the process. The pause lets you become aware of what’s happening, the assessment lets you determine what needs to be done, and the action is what you can bring to the situation. It is a three-step process of becoming aware, assessing, and acting.

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