The science of hope

Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope. It’s also the name of the main character in Sandra Cisneros’s wildly popular novel, The House on Mango Street. The book which is taught in most American elementary schools, tells a story common to many adolescents who strive to realize their aspirations. Sandra committed to hers at age eleven when she decided to become an author. A decade later hope sustained her through six years of writing to complete a book that has now sold more than six million copies.


Hope is the belief that the future will be better and you have the power to make it so. Hope is based on three main ideas: desirable goals, pathways to goal attainment, and agency (willpower) to pursue those pathways. -- Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind developed by Charles R. Snyder, Ph.D.


“Hope is the best determinant of overall well-being. It’s forward looking and optimistic,” says Chan Hellman, Ph.D, founding director of the Hope Research Center at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. “Hope is something we can learn. We generate more of it as we achieve success.”

The Science of Hope

Neuroscientists who are studying the science of hope have discovered that hopefulness changes the brain. In his book, The Anatomy of Hope, Dr. Jerome Groopman explains that belief and expectation, the key components of hope, can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphin and enkephalins — the body’s own version of a painkiller. He adds, “Hope, I have come to believe, is as vital to our lives as the very oxygen that we breathe.”

Hope is not a feel-good emotion. Unlike optimism, hope is not emotion at all. It’s a dynamic cognitive motivational system that takes optimism and makes it goal-oriented. Hope creates possibilities and instills in us a sense of anticipation and expectation. It revs up our internal engine to make something happen.

Hope is an incredible motivator

Studies suggest that the impact of being hopeful is stronger on a kid’s future academic success than feelings of self-worth or a positive attitude towards life. Additional research shows that students who are hopeful tend to be good problem-solvers and demonstrate more creativity. They have stronger friendships, exhibit lower levels of depression and anxiety and are less likely to drop out of school.

A person who is high in hope knows how to

  • Set clear and attainable goals.
  • Develop multiple strategies to reach those goals.
  • Stay motivated to use the strategies to attain the goals, even when the going gets tough.

As Brene Brown says, “I can do this because I know where I want to go. I know how to get there because I’m persistent and can tolerate disappointment and try again. 

When hope is low

A kid who feels hopeless often has trouble setting and reaching goals. They either think they have to achieve all the goals at the same time or they randomly choose goals that may not lead to any accomplishment. They’re likely to pick easy tasks that don’t offer any challenge or opportunity for growth and when they fail, they quit.

To assess your kid’s level of hope, use the Children’s Hope Scale created by Dr. Charles R. Snyder, a psychologist who pioneered the study of hope.  The scale is used in schools to help teachers determine how to support a student’s learning.

How to grow hope

The good news is: hope can be learned. You might say it’s like a muscle; exercise it and it grows. Kids who use positive self-talk are more likely to stick with a task, recover from their mistakes, and complete a goal.

Here are four ways you can help.

  1. Cast a vision. Help them see the big picture, so they can create a master list of goals.
  2. Celebrate small wins. Acknowledge your kid’s meaningful progress. It’s the incentive that will propel them forward.
  3. Offer help when asked. This is one of the five power behaviors of a self-directed learner. When your kid says, “I’ve tried to solve this problem myself using several different methods and I’m truly stuck,” then it’s okay to step in. This doesn’t mean you do the work. It’s about finding the resource that helps them solve the problem. 
  4. Draw on their memories – and yours -- of past success by telling stories. Remind them of those times you tapped into hope to overcome a challenge. Talk about others who have used hope to motivate them like refugees and people who have overcome illness or disability.

Being hopeful does not just mean looking on the bright side. It pushes a kid to do something. Prepared Parents’ UNBOXED digital learning kit, Many Hands Make Light Work teaches kids how to apply their hope to a cause or concern by crafting a persuasive argument that will inspire action. Curriculum designer and ThinkCERCA founder, Eileen Murphy Buckley, says, “The driver of Many Hands Make Light Work is: how do we unleash a kid’s optimism and potential? Kids are craving the opportunity to act right now. Here’s an opportunity to empower them to do some really great things. ”