From our Ask The Experts Contributor Dr. Merry Lin
We often talk about hope as an aspect of our faith journey, as an important part of our belief in God. Not only is it a fruit of the Holy Spirit – which means it’s a gift to us as we stay connected to Jesus and allow his Spirit to live in and through us – but it is what keeps us enduring through painful and difficult times. It’s what allows us to have unexplainable joy even in the midst of unbearable suffering. Because we have hope. Hope not in just a good outcome, but especially, hope in Jesus and in his redemptive promises.
Well, as I’ve often said before, good science is biblical, because it’s rooted in how God has created our bodies, minds and hearts. It turns out that hope is the first thing that a person must feel to begin the journey of healing. Research now shows us that hope has to be experienced even before love, for trauma survivors to even open themselves up to the possibility of love. Hope that healing can happen. Hope that they can experience freedom.
And the opposite is true: hopelessness is what can keep people trapped in depression, anxiety and grief. Give them hope, and they will cling to the possibility of change and healing. It is that important to life and survival.
But hope is thrown around so much that it could become meaningless, like “I hope the Maple Leafs win”; “I hope you feel better soon.” Hope is defined in the dictionary as “something good that you want to happen in the future, or a confident feeling about what will happen in the future.” So beyond just being a really familiar concept, how can we make hope practical in a way that really makes a difference in our life and is transformative?
Research shows us that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of goals, a sense of direction, and self-efficacy. In very simple terms, hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. People who self-report as hopeful put considerable value on persistence and hard work. Notice this: hope isn’t wishful thinking but is purposeful and intentional. It takes action and persistence.
If we want to cultivate hopefulness, we have to be willing to be flexible and demonstrate perseverance. Tolerance for disappointment, a sense of determination, and a belief in self and God are the heart of hope.
Hope then becomes the light that helps us to endure and overcome, that allows us to grow through tough experiences. Hope is found:
- In making meaning out of our difficulties, trauma and pain. And when I say “meaning”, it doesn’t mean we fully understand why we suffer. How can we understand all of the devastation we experience as broken human beings in a broken world? But it does help when we can find some meaning and growth through our pain. When we can trust that there is redemption in everything.
- In finding purpose in the midst of confusion and chaos and uncertainty. It turns out that having a sense of agency in times of powerlessness can make all the difference. If we can hold on to a sense of purpose, a sense of choice in what I do with my life and time; if I can trust that there is a reason for why I exist in this time and in this place, that God is using me for a good purpose, then that can anchor me to a sense of hope.
- In our resilience and confidence that we can handle tough things. Time and time again, research shows that it isn’t our ability to overcome our suffering and live pain-free (does such a thing exist?) that gives us hope. But it’s our confidence that we can handle tough things with resilience and faith in God, that gives us hope to continue.
- In our optimism to see the good parts of a situation and belief that something good will happen. Optimism has been shown conclusively to be linked to better physical health, mental health, relational health and even financial health! Optimism can be cultivated, much like any other skill, as we choose to focus on what is good in a situation, as we practice gratitude daily, and as we pursue joyful practices in our life.
And that’s the good news! We can practice hope, and in that we can build our hope resiliency. When I’m going through a tough time, I try hard to give myself self-compassion – empathy has been shown to calm our nervous system and our emotions. But then I spend time – as long as needed – reminding myself of the many times God has delivered me and shown up in difficult circumstances and I praise God in advance for what he will do.
Beyond the great spiritual practice that this is, focusing on God’s faithfulness in the past and thanking him in advance for all that he is doing on my behalf, actually changes the pathways in the brain. When God tells us to be “thankful always”, he didn’t mean that as a command to “obey, or else” but because he knew that he created us to live this way. Science shows us that positive thoughts release good hormones in our brains, while negative thought release toxic hormones, which can affect our physical and mental health.
So here are a few simple strategies to release dopamine in our brains (dopamine is our pain killer – not only does it help with physical pain, but it’s also shown to help alleviate emotional pain): watch a comedy, play a fun game, exercise, or eat dark chocolate. Yes, it’s that simple! The challenge is the daily discipline to practice hope so that it becomes habitual and transformative for our lives.
For access to a free Happiness Hacks resource, click here.
Dr. Merry C. Lin is a psychologist, podcaster, and speaker with over 25 years of clinical expertise. She is the Executive Director of Dr. Lin & Associates, where she leads a team of psychotherapists, life coaches, and leadership experts. A wise counsellor and respected speaker, she can be heard on her popular podcast, The Fully Lived Life, with her friend, Coach Gillian, where they speak about life, love and purpose through the lens of faith and science. She is an advocate for social justice and works globally to equip and support leaders who serve human trafficking and abuse survivors. Dr. Merry is the author of The Fully Lived Life: Rescuing Our Souls from All that Holds Us Back, and her teaching videos are available on her website, YouTube and RightNow Media (https://linktr.ee/Drmerry)