Hope Is More Than Just Wishful Thinking

We hear parents, teachers, and students use the word hope every day. But what exactly does it mean? When we read or hear the word, we might think of a positive outlook or desire, yet its true definition is nebulous. It implies that something will automatically or magically occur without effort. Even though having an optimistic outlook is important to overall well-being, a person with an unstructured and immeasurable concept of hope is prey to vague expectations—as if he is a passive bystander waiting for an outcome to come about.

What happens when it is instead viewed as an active construct? Studies have found that hope, when used in a proactive manner, can become a useful framework to help achieve goals and contribute to personal and psychological health.

Positive Psychology: A Strengths Approach

Historically, psychologists have approached the study of psychological well-being from a deficit perspective, focusing on treating and alleviating pathologies. Over time, they have taken an increasingly proactive and positive approach to the study and development of individuals and their happiness. Positive psychologists focus on developing personal strengths, fostering the growth of positive responses to adversity, and strengthening social and emotional foundations in patient’s lives. They study well-being, contentment, and satisfaction with the past, flow and happiness in the present, and optimism for the future.

Hope is one of many positive psychological constructs that contribute to overall health. Karl Menninger was one of the first to study hope as a psychological construct by defining hope as the positive expectation for attaining goals. He presented the idea that hope, while a basic part of daily human operation, was ill-defined and obscure, and theorized that some mental illness reflected a lack of hope. He also believed that successful treatment included reestablishing hope for those who were suffering.

Contemporary researchers have continued to build upon a “strengths approach” to examining the role of hope in psychological well-being. Hope is the link between goals dreamed today and the attainment of those goals in the future. Hopeful individuals view themselves as being able to create paths (“pathways thinking”) to achieve their goals; they initiate steps (“agency thinking”) toward achieving goals and sustain their course along a route to success.

What Hope Research Tells Us

C. R. Snyder and his team of contemporary researchers have written about hopefulness. Snyder developed the Adult Dispositional Hope Scale and the Children’s Hope Scale to offer researchers an active, measureable framework for the study of hope. Using Snyder’s hope scales, research has found that high-hope individuals:

  • Are able to set goals, make flexible plans to achieve the goals they set, and take action toward goal attainment. When comparing high-hope and low hope subjects, high-hopers think more positively about themselves, set higher goals, and select more goals.
  • Have a stronger belief in the likelihood that they will achieve their goals. They focus on success.
  • Possess self-referential beliefs in situations of adversity. Those who are hopeful have an undercurrent of internal self-statements: “I can,” “I’ll make it,” and “I won’t give up.”
  • Trust in themselves to be able to adjust to prospective trouble and losses.

On the other hand, individuals lacking hope:

  • Believe that pathways to their goals are unavailable to them; they set low goals and have a sense of uncertainty and failure about being able to achieve their goals.
  • Have a tendency to experience negative emotions when working toward their goals.

Hope and the Gifted

Research on the contribution of hope to the overall well-being of gifted learners and the long-term importance on school outcomes is just beginning. So far, researchers have found that gifted students with high hope achieve successful school-related outcomes, demonstrate higher success on

standardized achievement tests, and set higher global academic goals and expectancies of success. Students with low hope experience greater anxiety and self-doubt.

High-hope students don’t belittle themselves when they’re not successful. They don’t let their failures affect their ultimate sense of worth, but rather attribute their failure to a lack of effort or strategies for success. High-hope students have superior academic and interpersonal satisfactions when compared to those with low hope.

Researchers have also examined levels of hopefulness and the contribution hope makes to personal well-being in college freshman honors participants and early entrants, with a subsequent check-in during sophomore year. Findings include:

  • Being hopeful was strongly associated with positive personal well-being.
  • Gifted students who enter college with a higher sense of hope experience greater positive feelings of overall personal well-being initially—and after one year in college.
  • Honors college students who enter college with a strong ability to identify multiple paths toward goals appear to have moved toward achieving those goals after one year of college.

Increasing Student Hope

Although children in America generally feel hopeful, all children do not have the same level of hopefulness. At times, gifted children can find themselves in settings that are socially and intellectually stagnant. Gifted students may have a hard time finding intellectual peers and stimulating cognitive challenges commensurate with their abilities in a regular classroom. School can seem hopeless without goal-setting skills, without identifying paths to attain goals, and with low confidence toward accomplishing goals. Ideally, parents, teachers, and counselors should collaborate to help children develop goal-setting skills.

Setting goalsTeaching goal setting is foundational to assisting gifted children in the development of hopefulness. Gifted children need to be active participants in setting their own personal, social, and academic goals. In early grades, gifted students should be encouraged to set simple and specific goals that move them toward getting something accomplished (“approach goals”) rather than avoiding something (“avoidance goals”). As a child ages, goal setting can become more complex. Listing and ranking goals can help students learn the skill of prioritizing. Setting multiple goals should be encouraged in middle and high school, as multiple goals offer a fallback position if students encounter an intransigent obstacle. Students must also be taught how to identify and set markers of success.

Developing “pathways thinking”Parents and educators can help gifted students develop pathways thinking by breaking down larger goals into smaller components that are approached, and eventually completed, in a sequenced and logical way. Students should identify multiple routes to both small and large goals and practice overcoming obstacles. In this way, they learn to become flexible thinkers who see obstructions as pathways that don’t work. If a pathway is identified as unfeasible, students must learn the skills to switch lanes and find alternate routes.

Developing personal meaning or “agency thinking”It’s essential that children set goals that are their own—with personal meaning—rather than assuming the goals of their peers, teachers, or parents. Motivation, persistence, and performance are undermined if goals are not personally determined. Gifted children should also set “stretch” goals, keep journals of internal dialogues, and engage in team-related activities to foster personal meaning. In addition, developing memories of positive experiences, either through personal successes or by the example of others, helps keep gifted children resilient when they face difficulty reaching their goals.

The aim of those who parent and educate gifted kids is to foster academic success and happiness. Hope, when framed as a goal-directed and active process, helps students thrive academically and personally. It is therefore much more than wishful thinking about positive outcomes. When the gifted are able to set goals, see multiple routes to goals, and move toward the attainment of those goals, they have hope for fulfilling their potential. So the next time you use or hear the word hope, think twice about both what it means and your role in helping those who are hopeful.

This blog post, an excerpt from Parenting for High Potential (March 2014), is by Janette Boazman, the chair of education at the University of Dallas.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper.