By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast/article about mental health and wellbeing by Australian author and speaker Jeremy Godwin that is about much more than just talk; each episode is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This week I’m talking about hope – what hope is, why it’s so important for good mental health and wellbeing, and what to do if you’re struggling to find or maintain hope. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article version. Let’s talk!
Hope is the foundation of good mental health and wellbeing. It’s the thing that pushes us forwards; the belief that things can and will improve, with time and effort. So when you’re struggling with feelings of hopelessness, it can seem like nothing will ever get better – and quite often that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today I’m going to talk about different ways to improve and maintain your sense of hope, but let me say that there is no magic pill you can swallow – it’s still going to take you to do the work. Even if all you can manage at the moment is five minutes every day to do one of the things I’m going to suggest a bit later then that’s a great place to start, and I promise you that if you stick to it, and build on that, over time things will get better – and isn’t that something to be hopeful for?
What is hope and why does it matter?
Hope is the belief that things can and will get better. Hope is what gets you out of bed each day and makes you want to put one foot in front of the other, to keep on going. It’s the dream of a brighter tomorrow, and a life of satisfaction in a world that’s even just a little bit better than it was yesterday. Which is why it’s so horrible and painful when you find yourself struggling to maintain or even summon up hope. Without a sense of hope, it can seem almost impossible to change your life or overcome difficult situations – and that feeling of hopelessness can often be a symptom of ongoing mood disorders, like depression.
First let’s be clear that no situation is hopeless. When cities across the United Kingdom were being reduced to dust and rubble during the Blitz in World War II, the situation was definitely difficult and many suffered, but it wasn’t completely hopeless – because for something to be hopeless, the chance of victory has to be zero. In that example, we know that the UK not only survived the Blitz but went on to win the war along with its allies. In the words of American playwright Clare Booth Luce;
“There are no hopeless situations; there are only men [those] who have grown hopeless about them.”Clare Booth Luce
A quick word here about the quotes I use: I’ve started changing gender-specific quotes like this one, which originally said “men” rather than “those”, because I feel like it’s the right thing to do. Originally I was adamant about sticking to the original quote so as to be authentic to its author, but the reality is that times change and so do our perspectives on what’s socially acceptable, and whilst I appreciate the purist view on citing the original quote word-for-word because that’s how it was written, it does serve to reinforce old-fashioned notions about gender and male superiority which is just not appropriate, and certainly doesn’t conform to my own view of the world. So if you ever come across a quote that I’ve modified slightly, that’s why – that’s the only change I will make, and I don’t think it’s a big deal to make changes like this that are fairer and more inclusive.
Back to my point – things are nowhere near as bad as what our minds can make them out to be.
If you think things are worse today than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago – you’re wrong. In general, society is a lot more tolerant and there are much greater freedoms than we had before, and there’s a greater recognition of the need to spread kindness and positivity in the world if that’s what we each want to attract into our own lives. The problem is that a small number of negative people have loud voices and have platforms that allow them to spread hatred, and so it’s up to each of us to block out that noise and instead focus on our own contributions to the world, because that’s where hope comes in. I think a lot of us end up with this collective anxiety around the bad stuff that goes on in the world, and instead of doing something to change it we can become overwhelmed by it. No situation is hopeless – not your individual circumstances, and certainly not the challenges we face in our world. It just takes hope, and for each of us to make positive contributions to the world.
How does hope affect mental health?
Hope plays a huge role in good mental health and wellbeing, because without hope it can be challenging to find the strength to go on. When you’re struggling to find hope, or if you’re feeling hopelessness and despair, it can lead to a vicious cycle of creating more hopelessness, more despair.
In a minute we’ll talk about things you can do to feel more hopeful, but first let’s talk about the linkage between hope and mental health. Acharya and Agius (2017) noted that “hope underpins the recovery process of mental illness, as recovery depends on the notion that a patient desires to get better” (source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28953841). One of the biggest things I worked through in therapy back in 2012, when I was struggling with the worst of my depression and anxiety, was my sense of hope, because it’s critical to see that a better future is possible.
If you’re finding it difficult to muster up any sense of hope then this podcast might be a good start, but you need to go and talk to someone to work through those feelings – whether that’s a therapist or a coach or just someone who you feel comfortable talking with – because if you let that go on for too long then it’s going to be hard to find your way back to a place of being able to enjoy all that life has to offer (and it’s really dangerous for your long-term mental health, so get off your butt and talk to someone. Now!).
There are plenty of things that you can do to build your sense of hopefulness – but as with all things related to mental health and wellbeing there’s no quick fix, because these things take time and effort. It all boils down to making the choice to do something about the way you might be feeling – nobody can make that choice for you but you. It is possible, but it won’t just happen because you want it to; it takes conscious effort.
What to do if you’re struggling to find or maintain hope
So, how do you do that? How do you find and maintain hope? Let’s get into the good stuff: the “how to”. Let’s talk through some specific points to help you:
Explore why – I think I start pretty much every ‘how to’ section by talking about the importance of working out why you might be struggling in a particular area. Why do I do that? Because understanding yourself is the absolute most basic foundation of your mental health and wellbeing – how can you make changes for the better and sustain them unless you know what’s going on deep inside? I talked about how to dig deep in Episode 7: Baggage so refer to that episode/article for step-by-step advice, or you can speak to someone who can guide you through; I think serious trauma and hopelessness needs a highly qualified professional (and I shared an article in Newsletter 16 which gave tips for finding someone you feel comfortable enough with to work with them), or you can engage a coach to work through things.
Mindset – your mindset is a choice, so make a choice to look for hope, to look for the good in things… even if that’s just your cat coming and laying next to you when you’re feeling sad, or being able to laugh at your favourite movie, or being excited for that new TV show you’ve been looking forward to. Your mindset is your choice, which is hard to accept if you’re in the depths of despair and it’s certainly not easy to change it, but you can change it. I’ve done it, and so can you. When I was so depressed and anxious that I couldn’t function and I didn’t want to go on anymore, I pushed myself to do one thing each day that I enjoyed, no matter how small. Once that became a habit, I pushed it to two… and so on, and so forth. Even little things can bring you hope if you’re finding it to be lacking, but it all starts with making the choice to change your mindset.
Gain some perspective – Remember that, as clichéd as it might seem, you have survived 100% of your bad days so far – and that’s a pretty amazing statistic! Think of those times in the past where you thought you couldn’t get through something: you did, and if you’re struggling now, know that this too will pass. Breathe, and take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
Seek satisfaction rather than chasing happiness – I have talked about this a lot in my podcasts, and I’m going to keep on talking about it a lot more! Happiness is not a permanent state, and it never will be. We are taught to seek happiness, but since it’s a fleeting emotion we then find ourselves chasing it – it’s like a drug addict always chasing that first high but never being able to repeat it. If you focus on being as satisfied with your life as possible – by doing work that feels meaningful and purposeful, by being around people whose company you enjoy, by removing yourself from negative relationships and situations, by being kind and giving more than you take from the world so that you can leave it even just a little bit better than you found it – you will increase your overall life satisfaction, and then happiness and contentment will occur more frequently as a by-product of satisfaction. Being happy is fantastic – being satisfied is even better because it lasts longer! It took me a very long time and far too much money to realise that, and I’m glad that I finally did. I’m ten times happier now living in a little house in a small town in the countryside than I ever was earning six figures and living in the inner city, because I am more satisfied with what I’m doing with my life; and that in turn serves to make me feel even more hopeful about what is to come.
Do what you can – if you’re struggling and the best you can manage today is to have a shower or take out the garbage, then good on you. Even small actions can have a monumental impact, because they help us to push past the sense of apathy and inertia that can often accompany severe feelings of hopelessness. Take it one day at a time and do what you can.
Set small goals and milestones – if you’re struggling to feel hopeful, this might not be the time to tie all of your desires up in an enormous goal that might take two, three, four years to achieve… focus on small goals instead, and celebrate every win. I’m talking about goals that are measured in days, or at most weeks – it could be finishing that article you want to write, or reading one book a month that inspires you, or setting up one catch-up with a different friend every fortnight. Don’t try to boil the ocean – take it one step at a time with smaller goals which will allow you to see your progress and feel your success sooner.
Don’t let the small stuff control you – we can often get caught up focusing on the little things that really don’t matter in the long run. The next time you’re feeling hopeless about a specific situation or event, ask yourself: will it matter in five years time? And then ask yourself: will it really??? I don’t remember most of the things from five or ten years ago that I thought were the absolute end of the world at the time, and the things that I do remember – the bigger things like the crippling depression and anxiety, the financial troubles, the feeling lost and without a purpose, etc. – are all the things that I now know helped to push me towards a much better place in my life than I have ever been before. The small stuff is just the small stuff, so don’t get caught up in drama and all the other crap that goes on around you; instead, choose to focus on stuff that is in line with your goals and that is in the best interests of your mental health and wellbeing; then, let everything else be water off a duck’s back.
Surround yourself with positive people – this one is pretty straightforward: if you spend most of your time with negative people, that bad energy is going to rub off sooner or later. Choose to be around people who support you and nurture you, and remove people from your life who don’t treat you respectfully. It’s hard to maintain hope when people are sucking the life out of you, so choosing to pursue only positive relationships will directly impact on your sense of hopefulness and positivity.
Speak to older people – relatives, family friends, neighbours… find out about their lives, and if you’re close enough to them and feel comfortable, then find out about times that they felt hopeless and ask how they got through it. My grandmother and step-grandfather, both of whom have long passed, were an amazingly-kind couple and I still treasure the story of their past together. My nan’s husband, my biological grandfather, was a prisoner or war in WWII on the Burma Railway and he died there, leaving Nan to raise three young boys on her own. The man who came to tell her about my grandfather’s demise knew him, and so it was a deeply personal task for him that he chose to undertake. To cut a long story short, they ended up marrying and were together until she died in 1989, and he treated all of us as his own family – there was never any distinction between ‘blood family’ vs ‘step family’ by either of them, and I don’t think I really knew he was my step-grandfather until I was 7 or 8; to me, he was just my Pop. Their story always reminds me that hope springs out of the unlikeliest of places and often in the darkest of times, and that it really is possible to go on even when your entire world has been turned upside down. Sure, things are never going to be the same as they were, and if it’s an example like this where you have lost someone dear to you, it’s heart-wrenching… but it’s also joyful, because to feel that strongly – to love that strongly – is a gift that not everyone gets to experience. Talking to older people can help to put things into perspective for you and may help you to rekindle your own sense of hopefulness.
Volunteer – I talked about this in Episode 15: Loneliness and I did so for a good reason: because volunteering your time and helping others can help to give you a new way of looking at things, especially when you help others who are worse off than you.
Choose what you put into your mind and soul – aside from the obvious advice about healthy stuff going into your body leads to healthy outcomes (funny that), think about what you’re choosing to take on board mentally and spiritually. For example: if you sit and watch the 24/7 news channels, you’re probably going to think the entire world is on fire (it’s not). Yes there are terrible things going on, however there will always be challenging things happening because that is part of life – challenges take different shapes and forms, however what they all have in common is that they present us an opportunity to grow, to evolve. The movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries to gain the right for women to vote took many, many decades to achieve its goals – but it did.
Things have actually improved in a huge number of ways – a 2018 article on Vox.com (which you can read here) shows 23 charts that demonstrate how much better the world is becoming, from the fall in extreme poverty and hunger, to the decline of child labour; from the continued rise in our average life expectancy, to the massive decline in child mortality rates; from increased literacy rates through greater participation in education, to huge increases in internet access rates making our world more connected than ever before. Positive change doesn’t come overnight – it takes time and it takes every single one of us to contribute, and to have hope that we can create a brighter future; word by word, action by action… and we can, because we already have, and it’s only going to get better – even in spite of people who cling on to old ways and use their power to satisfy their own greed. If you focus on the negative, that is all you will see; so, instead, choose to focus more on the positive. There are a couple of great ‘good news’ accounts I follow on Instagram like Good News Movement and Tank’s Good News, and it’s inspiring to see positive stories in my feed every day. So, choose what you put in to your mind and soul.
What it all boils down to is this: hope is a choice, and it is a choice that you make for your own benefit because nobody can make feel hopeful; instead, it’s up to each of us to find the strength from deep within to look for hope every single day, no matter how small or insignificant that hopeful thing might seem. Because the reality is that things can get better and they will get better, and if you’re struggling to find and maintain hope then know that there are so many good things in the world just waiting for you to find them – and failing that, there’s always videos on the internet of kittens or puppies to tide you over in the meantime!
Summary and three main points to consider
To summarise: hope is what keeps us going, and if you’re struggling to find or maintain hope then you owe it to yourself and the people who love you to do something to improve your situation. No circumstance is ever truly hopeless, even if it might feel it sometimes, and if you’re finding it difficult to feel hopeful then all you have to do is ask for help. Pick up the phone and talk to someone – do it now, because the steps you take today will shape your tomorrow.
To wrap up, here are my three main points for you to consider:
- Hope is the foundation of your mental health and wellbeing, because it’s what makes you want to keep on going
- If you’re feeling hopelessness, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any hope – it just means that you’re struggling, so talk to someone and do things every day that restore your sense of hopefulness, no matter how small,
- Be conscious of what you put into your mind, body and soul, because that will have a direct impact on your mental health and your overall feelings of hopefulness – if you need to make changes in your life to improve your mental health, then make the changes
As always, I’m going to close out with a quote I’d like to encourage you to reflect on and consider what it means for you. This week’s quote is by writer Charles Sawyer, and it is:
“Of all the forces that make for a better world, none is so indispensable, none so powerful as hope. Without hope [we are] only half alive.“Charles Sawyer
So, that’s it for this week! For more content, go to:
- Website: Head over to www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for more information about Let’s Talk About Mental Health and to sign up so that new posts/newsletters will land in your inbox, and you can also find all past episodes on the website (click here to jump to the Episodes page)
- Podcast: You can listen to the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast via your preferred platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and others) as well as an audio-only version on the LTAMH YouTube channel
- Social Media: Connect with me on social media – you can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamhofficial (I post extra content daily)
Next week I’ll be talking about burnout – I’ll be discussing what burnout is, how to identify if you’re burnt-out or at risk of burning out, and what to do to address it. I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning Australian time. On Friday I’ll be sending out the next issue of the Mental Health Talk newsletter, which is a weekly round-up of articles and resources focused on good mental health and wellbeing – sign up at the website to have the newsletter land in your inbox every Friday.
Just quickly before I finish up: I’ve talked a fair bit lately about the importance of talking to someone, and if you are interested I offer coaching services via video conference – if you’re interested, have a look at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching for more information and rates.
Until next time, look after yourself and make a conscious choice to put some positive energy out into the world – you get back what you give out! Take care and talk to you next time.
PS: If you enjoyed this week’s episode/post, please share it with someone you know. Thanks!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.