3. The Psychological Structure of Hope
The reader could be forgiven for asking: haven’t I been talking about the psychological structure of hope already? I have. But now we find our exploration of hope enriched by contemporary work in positive psychology. Positive psychology is a broad movement in late 20th century psychology that moves the focus of psychology from mental illness (fixing what is wrong) to the achievement of satisfactory life (pursuing and enjoying what is right or healthy).
Charles R. Snyder (1944-2006) wrote the first textbook in positive psychology and was a leader in the field. He spent his career as a teacher, researcher, and theorist at the University of Kansas. In the 1970s and 1980s, while conducting research on the excuses people give for failing to reach goals, Snyder theorized that excuses help people distance themselves from failures. But as he listened to his research participants, they had something more to say. Excuses were only part of the story. Yes, they wanted to distance themselves from failures, but they also wanted to decrease the distance to their positive life goals. Reflection on this research led Snyder to propose “hope theory.”
Snyder’s core definition: Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes.
Much of human life is teleological; that is, we pursue goals. Snyder offers a simple diagram:
But we often encounter obstacles that keep us from reaching our goals. This gives us a more complicated diagram.
Two things are needed to reach life goals when obstacles get in the way, Snyder thought. A person needs to be able to think up “pathways” around the obstacle that may enable her to reach the goal, and she needs to have “agentic motivation” to invent these pathways and put them into practice.
In the fifteen years after 1990, Snyder and his team of colleagues and students at the University of Kansas built an impressive array of research on this fundamental idea. They devised the Adult Dispositional Hope Scale, the Adult State Hope Scale, the Children’s Hope Scale, the Young Children’s Hope Scale and the Adult Domain-Specific Hope Scale. The scales are composed of a surprisingly small number of items, less than 20 in every case. Using their hope scales on a variety of populations (college students, children, adults, and senior adults), the Kansas researchers made several claims: the hope scales give reliable information, comparable to other accepted psychological inventories; high hope scores correlate well with positive life outcomes; and therapeutic interventions can be devised to increase clients’ hope. Further, Snyder offered a possible explanation for a surprising but well-documented finding about psychological therapy, i.e. that various psychological approaches for producing change in clients appear to be equally effective. Therapeutic interventions based on seemingly very different psychological theories all have a common feature of offering hope to clients. Perhaps it is hope, and not the particular theoretical construct, that really matters.
Snyder and his colleagues claim that both parts of hope—agency and pathways thinking—aare necessary to increase hopefulness and improve life outcomes. A client suffering from depression (or some other presenting problem) might perceive himself as being unable or without desire to do anything in regard to his goals (a lack of agency), unable to think of ways to achieve his goals (lack of pathways thinking), or both. Hope therapy aims to discover which deficits are present and help the client come to perceive himself as being able in both areas. Self-perception is crucial; if a client sees himself as motivated and willing to use appropriate methods of achieving his goals, and sees himself as able to invent appropriate methods of achieving his goals, he exhibits hope.
Snyder and his research team applied this analysis to many areas of life. The Domain-Specific Hope Scale includes social relationships, academics, romantic relationships, family life, work, and leisure activities. Hope therapy is appropriate, they claimed, with every age group from young children to the elderly.
Hope therapy aims at changing the way clients think. “In hope therapy, change is initiated at the cognitive level, with a focus on enhancing clients’ self-referential agentic and pathway goal-directed thinking.” Snyder and his colleagues thought that affective changes—that is, changes in a client’s feelings—would follow from changed thinking. This put hope theory and hope therapy in sharp contrast to much previous psychological interest in hope, which thought of hope primarily in terms of positive emotions.
Hope theory says that hope is goal-directed (teleological), but it doesn’t say much about which goals are appropriate. It is the client who decides which areas of life are important to her and what her goals are in those areas. In the previous chapter, I divided hopes into four kinds: immoral hope (such as Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor), innocent hope (the fan’s hope for a pennant), praiseworthy hope (a man’s hope to provide for his children after he dies), and theological hope (the hope for eternal friendship with God). Snyder’s hope therapy does not speak to such distinctions. Therapists may have to help clients make their amorphous goals more specific, and they may actively redirect clients’ thinking so they can acknowledge their own abilities to conceive of goals and pathways to them.
Perhaps for the purposes of therapy, that is enough. I will return to categories of hope and the things we hope for in a later chapter.
I will not try to describe hope therapy in greater detail now. Suffice it to say that Snyder and his colleagues produced (and after Snyder’s death his colleagues are still producing) a generous supply of research and “how to” materials for psychological professionals.
How does hope theory as presented by Snyder and his colleagues square with the description of hope I have been developing? I offer three observations.
First, Snyder’s hope theory and the definition I proposed in chapter 1 are both teleological. Hope looks toward the future.
Second, crucial to Snyder’s theory is the idea of “blocks” to goals. This matches a feature of Aquinas’s analysis of hope that I haven’t yet explained. According to Aquinas, human passions come in two kinds. “Concupiscent” passions move one to attain something perceived as good (e.g. hunger or sexual desire), or avoid something perceived as evil (e.g. sadness or hatred). “Irascible” passions move one to overcome some threat or difficulty that stands in the way of one’s goals (e.g. courage or anger). Concupiscent passions may encounter obstacles—I may have to earn money to buy the food I desire—but the obstacle/difficulty is not essential to the passion. Sometimes the food I desire is immediately available. In contrast, irascible passions are always marked by difficulty or obstacle; the defining feature of an irascible passion is that it overcomes some hindrance.
Aquinas included hope among the irascible passions. On Aquinas’s account, hope is the passion that moves us to attain a possible but difficult good. It is interesting that Snyder’s theory agrees with this insight. Without the notion of “blocks” to goals, and the accompanying idea of “pathways” around the blocks, Snyder’s theory would be insignificant.
Third, there is an apparent contradiction between Snyder’s theory, which is emphatically cognitive, and the “syndrome” concept of hope I will introduce in my next chapter (borrowing from Adrienne Martin). The syndrome definition explicitly includes perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations as parts of hope. On Snyder’s account, if a person perceives himself as having motivation to think up and use pathways to his goals and perceives himself as able to think up pathways to his goals, he exemplifies hope. Everything is cognitive. The “syndrome” concept of hope is emphatically wholistic, not purely cognitive. I will explore these differences in the next chapter.
 Snyder (2000). 5-8.
 Ibid. 8.
 Lopez, et al. “Diagnosing for Strengths.” 58.
 Ibid. 76-84. The Domain Specific Hope Scale uses more questions, but no more than 9 in any particular domain.
 Ibid. 60.
 Lopez, et al. “Hope Therapy.” 123.
 Ibid. 123-125.
 Snyder and Taylor. 89-90.
 Lopez, et al. “Diagnosing.” 77-81.
 Lopez, et al. “Hope Therapy.” 126.