A timely blog from the always readable Eric Barker brings us the science of hope.

Before his passing, Charles Snyder was a professor at the University of Kansas and editor of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. His books are Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications and Psychology of Hope.

Barker tells us that Snyder defined the route to hope thus:

Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes… According to the theory, people who are hopeful believe they are good at generating goal thoughts, creating effective pathways leading to goal attainment, maintaining agency thoughts to provide enough motivation for the goal pursuit, and handling barriers that arise.

After all, as Barker reminds us, right now:

You’re dealing with life and death, financial concerns, issues of justice, and the safety and sanity of those you love. We have to get all that back on track in a world where clear answers are less than forthcoming. Human nature is on our side but we have plenty of work to do. Planet ain’t gonna fix itself; grab a shovel.

And so:

We don’t need wishes. We need active hope. The kind of hope that comes from a good plan, one that you are confident you can execute.

But in the endless weekly grind of ‘lockdown’ and Covid anxieties, it’s hard to come up with a plan that feels up to task. It’s all either too wishful or too timid. So what to do?

It starts with the goals:

Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope

When you have goals (knowing what you want) and agency (the drive to get what you want) and pathways (the ability to generate methods to achieve what you want), you get hope.

With this type of hope, you don’t wish things will work out; you know deep down in your bones they will. You never doubt it.

I’ve always rather hated setting goals… what if I fail, is this the right thing to be shooting for, will it be worth it?

After all as Barker says:

Asking yourself “What are my goals?” is an excellent way to make your mind go blank.

He advises getting specific:

List out the major areas of your life (“career”, “family”, etc.) and beside each one simply write “I want…” Then finish the sentence. Be specific…

No, even more specific…

Sorry, still not specific enough…

Don’t say, “I need to find a new job,” say “I’m going to spend one hour every morning job-hunting on LinkedIn and reaching out to contacts.”

Snyder says you want “Specific, growth-seeking, performance-based, moderately-difficult goals.”

We’ve covered the ‘specific’ part. What’s a “growth-seeking” goal?

The right goals for ‘right now’ forget hope for the applause of others, and focus on personal growth.

Snyder’s research shows:

There is evidence that people who set validation-seeking goals are more prone to depressive episodes and self-esteem loss than those who set growth-seeking goals (Dykman, 1998). Validation-seeking goals are strivings to prove one’s self-worth, competence, and likeability through attainment of a goal. In contrast, growth-seeking goals are strivings to learn, grow, and improve.

I’m pretty good at action (agency) and finding routes forward (pathways) but Barker helped me realise I could do with a clearer more positive goal right now. Not least given my first thought was the one Barker advised against – get a new job!

So instead I’ve worked on some ‘growth’ goals:

  • Practice forgiving myself and others for what’s happening at work,
  • Be curious; practice and learn new psychological techniques through conflict at work,
  • Take breaks several times a day to breathe, reset and be ‘mindful’,
  • Keep learning Italian and French, and
  • Keep learning more about psychology and neuroscience.

I still think I should get a new job though!

However, as chance would have it an email from Chris Croft dropped into my inbox today; reminding me to find some things to enjoy at work too… So I’ll be looking for laughter where I can find it, and for the opportunity to write and create at work this week, among all the other difficult things.

Both Barker and Chris Croft reckon you can’t be happy or hopeful without some written goals. I’ve concluded, especially when everything is going wrong, they’re probably right.

One thought on “Goals + Agency + Pathways = Hope

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