The Thing About Hope

I want to tell you a story.

Last year, I had a woman in my office who shared with me, tears streaming down her face, that she hated what her life had become and she would rather die than go on living this way.

I found her words very moving, because she’s a smart, kind, likeable, capable woman with a wonderful family, a network of friends, a great job, and deep faith.

But she was tired of being overweight, and tired of treating herself like a garbage can. She took care of everyone but herself. At the end of the day, after everything had been done and everyone else’s needs had been attended to, she would sit in front of the TV and eat.

Sound familiar?

She works at my former college, and she knew I taught a course on The Psychology of Eating. She originally reached out to me to ask if she could audit my class.

She was clear on one thing – she was ready to make a change.

I told her that my course wasn’t what she needed. Theory and textbooks wouldn’t help her.

She needed an action plan.

She needed a food plan.

But most of all, she needed HOPE.

By the time she walked out of my office, hardly an hour later, she had all of the above.

Besides being a tremendously rewarding way to spend an afternoon, this exchange got me thinking.

What, exactly, is this thing we call “hope”?

What is it that she received in talking with me for those few minutes that restored the warmth and light to her eyes?

Believe it or not, there is now a scientific answer to that question. Positive Psychologists, psychologists who study “what makes life worth living,” including things like character strengths, flourishing marriages, and happiness-boosting activities, also study hope.

One prominent view, Snyder’s Hope Theory, says that hope is made up of three things.

The first component is the expectation that the future will be better than the present. There has to be a goal in the mix, and it has to be a positive goal. Erik Erikson defined hope as, “The enduring belief in the attainability of fervent wishes.” On its own, the belief in a brighter future isn’t really much different than optimism. But, of course, optimism and hope are not the same. Hope goes further.

Hence, the second component, which is a pathway. There has to be some road you could travel to get to this brighter future. This is why reading a good non-fiction book can be so uplifting. It provides a pathway.

But when you add the final ingredient, you really get the special sauce. The third component is agency, which is the belief that you yourself can travel that pathway and get to that goal, that promised land.

When I talked with this colleague, I didn’t stand on a high mountain top and disseminate a lot of information about how her insulin levels are too high and they’re blocking the hormone leptin from being active in the brain, and how she’s consuming more calories than she’s burning, and if she eats less and exercises more she’ll lose weight.

Nope. I said none of that.

Instead, I showed her my fat picture.

She looked at it and nodded. “Yup,” she said. “That’s pretty much what I look like.”

Then I told her that I’d followed a method of eating called Bright Line Eating™ and it had worked for me.

I printed off a food plan.

I gave her a bulleted list of instructions for getting started.

And suddenly, it happened.

She had hope.

Not because she was healthier, more knowledgeable, or more talented.

But because she now could see the image of a bright future, knew the path to walk to get there, and could picture herself doing it.

That’s what we become, each one of us, when we grow into the best version of ourselves. We become beacons of hope.

When we talk with someone and describe our journey, they know that if we can do it, they can do it too.