Trained Hopefulness

Photo by Azzedine Rouichi on Unsplash

When life feels like it’s spinning out of control, or like the task you have in front of you is insurmountable, it’s easy to default to hopelessness. To “What’s the point?” That’s natural. Your body evolved to conserve energy. We need to train for hopefulness. To clear the path to continue. It doesn’t take big heroic efforts to train hope. Small signals that you are in control, that you can have an impact, will be enough to turn our prefrontal cortex back on. If too many emails are causing you consternation, define a specific hour each day in which you’ll answer them. If grief has destroyed your motivation, give yourself permission to feel the strong emotions, binge on Netflix, but also to let go. You don’t need to be “back to normal” the day after a major loss, but you can take small steps toward normalcy to flex your control muscle: going for a walk instead of a full-blown workout, meeting friends for coffee, spending an hour a day diving back into your work project. Too often, we get stuck in the rut of apathy, because we haven’t flexed our hopeful muscle. Small actions that remind you that you have a choice go a long way to training the ability to put your brain back online.

Steve Magness, Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness [affiliate link]

“Hope” is a learned behavior. As expressed by Steve Magness, hope can be trained, like a muscle. Exercising agency, or the human ability to choose, activates and invigorates us. Small, positive choices snowball and build momentum. When we recall that we do have some control over our choices, even if that range is limited, we are able to keep going, to persist.

Magness’ assertion above is based in cognitive science, in research on the prefrontal cortex and its power to control our emotions while under stress. When times get tough, our default is to feel helpless. We can be overwhelmed by our circumstances and tempted to shut down, cowered, and quit. But we’re never totally helpless. So long as we exercise agency, even if it is over our attitude and inward disposition, we can continue moving forward.

How does this connect to toughness? We develop toughness when we learn that we always have a choice, that there is always something over which we can exercise control in any and all circumstances, no matter how challenging. Magness prescribes moving from small choices to large choices, “giving yourself a choice,” turning a negative into a positive (he calls it “flip the script”), and adopting a ritual, or focusing on what you can rather than what you can’t control (such as a batter’s routine before stepping into the batters’ box, or a basketball player’s pre-shot rhythm at the free throw line) when entering a high pressure environment.

For people of faith, the development of “trained hopefulness” has a twofold dimension. First, we remember that our first choice, in every circumstance, is to trust in God. Our second is to remember that our agency is exercised before God, and that if we seek the kingdom and answer our call, all that we do unto the Lord is not in vain. We’re not helpless. Nothing is impossible with God. In our most challenging circumstances, God is with us.