The Science of Hope

Hope is a powerful and multifaceted emotion that plays a crucial role in our mental health, resilience, and overall outlook on life. It’s more than just wishful thinking. Hope is deeply rooted in neuroscience, psychology, and even influences our physical well-being.

Optimism is a positive expectation and belief that things can improve or that desired outcomes are possible, even in challenging circumstances. Hope is optimism plus setting goals, identifying pathways to achieve them, and maintaining the motivation to pursue them despite obstacles. Hope is an essential component of the human experience, influencing our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and overall health and well-being.

Did you know that the founder of the Family Justice Center movement, Casey Gwinn co-authored a book on the very topic? Hope Rising: How the Science of HOPE Can Change Your Life, which is a “clarion call to apply the science of hope in daily life and overcome the trauma, adversity, and struggles everyone must face.” Gwinn’s co-author is OU psychologist Chan Hellman. You can take this quick assessment to learn more about your Adult Hope Score.  If after taking the assessment, your hope score is low Gwinn says you shouldn’t be discouraged because hope can be learned, cultivated, and restored.

In speaking about a survivor of strangulation who feels they have no way out Gwinn says, “She [the victim] has literally been robbed of the ability to stop the violence. When she says, ‘I’m scared to death of him and I’m staying with him,’ she’s not saying she wants the violence to continue. She sees no pathway. She’s focusing on his choices, not hers, but she has no control over his rage.” The science of hope, however, shows that a person who has experienced major trauma can set goals, plan, persist, and thrive. The Family Justice Center is based on helping those individuals navigate the way.

Your Brain on Hope

So, what is the science behind hope? Neuroscience research has identified specific brain regions associated with hope. Studies using brain imaging techniques like functional MRI have shown that hope activates areas of the brain involved in goal setting, motivation, and reward processing. The prefrontal cortex, which governs higher cognitive functions such as decision making and planning, plays a critical role in generating and sustaining hope.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, in her book “The Science of Optimism” discusses how our brains are naturally inclined towards optimism and hope. She explains that the brain’s optimism bias leads us to expect positive outcomes, even when faced with uncertainty or adversity.

Psychologists have developed theories and interventions to understand and promote hope. Charles R. Snyder’s Hope Theory proposes that hope consists of two key elements:

  • Agency — the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals; and
  • Pathways — the identification of ways to reach those goals.

According to Snyder, individuals with high hope are more resilient and better equipped to navigate life’s challenges.

More research on hope and well-being emphasizes the importance of cultivating hope as a skill, proposing that hopeful thinking can be learned and enhanced through specific strategies, such as setting realistic goals, developing problem-solving skills, and challenging negative thought patterns.

Your Body on Hope

Hope is not just a psychological concept, it also has tangible effects on our physical health and well-being. Studies have shown that hopeful individuals are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as exercise, eating well, and seeking medical care when needed. Hopeful thinking can reduce stress, boost the immune system, and promote faster recovery from illnesses.

Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests that hope is positively correlated with life satisfaction and overall happiness. Hopeful individuals are more likely to experience a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives, leading to greater subjective well-being.

Cultivating Hope in Daily Life

While some individuals may naturally possess a hopeful outlook, not everyone has the ability to feel like sunshine and roses all the time. But the good news is that hope is a skill that can be developed and nurtured over time.

Here are some practical ways to cultivate hope in your daily life:

  • Set realistic goals – break down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps.
  • Focus on solutions – brainstorm potential solutions and take proactive steps to reach your goals.
  • Practice gratitude when you can – cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you have and anything that’s going well in your life.
  • Seek support – try to seek out positive and supportive people who encourage and uplift you.
  • Challenge negative thoughts – try to replace self-defeating thoughts with more empowering and optimistic ones. This includes banishing negative self-talk.

Hope is a transformative force that influences our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. By understanding the science of hope and adopting practical strategies to nurture it, we can cultivate a more positive and resilient mindset, leading to a healthier and more fulfilling life.

Remember, hope is not about denying reality but rather embracing the possibility of a better future, setting pathways to achieve goals and the willpower to pursue those pathways, even in the face of adversity.


The Greene County Family Justice Center is a non-profit collaborative of local agencies offering comprehensive services to survivors of domestic, sexual, and family violence. Our services are trauma-informed, survivor-centered, and we welcome survivors at any point in their process. We partner with local non-profit service providers as well as local law enforcement, the Prosecutor’s office, and Children’s Division to make victim services more accessible and completely voluntary. If you do not want to participate in the criminal justice process, we support you.

Our vision is a future where we all work together to meet the needs of domestic violence and human trafficking survivors through comprehensive and accessible services, education, and perpetrator accountability. Through a coordinated framework and co-located response, we strive to break the vicious generational cycle and community impact of domestic violence and resulting victimizations.

We can help you plan for your safety whether you plan to stay in the relationship, or you are actively trying to escape. All our services are free, confidential and survivor centered. Have questions about what services are available? Visit us at 1418 E. Pythian Street or give us a call at 417-874-2600. We are open 8:30 AM to 4:00 PM, Monday through Friday. For after-hours assistance, call the Harmony House/Victim Center’s 24-hour safe line at 417-864-SAFE (7233). If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.