If you were asked to describe “hope” to someone from another planet, how would you do it?
Positivity, optimism, cheerfulness or another completely different word or phrase?
When you think about it, not many things are as difficult to define as hope.
We are all familiar with the sense of hope when we experience it but hope isn’t concrete, easily measurable or available in pill form (not yet anyway). Regardless, if you or someone you care about suffers from chronic pain, understanding and tapping into the power of hope can be a game changer.
This idea isn't necessarily new. In fact, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote, "The natural healing force within each of us is the greatest force for getting well."
What Hope is and What It Isn't
Hope often gets mistakenly bundled together with things like optimism, wishful thinking and even denial—but there are important distinctions.
While optimism and hope are interrelated, they are different in that optimism is only half of hope. Optimism is an overall feeling that good things will happen (a good life outlook for sure) but hope also tends to be focused on achieving specific goals.
Wishful thinking is fantasizing something will happen. Wishing is also more passive, whereas hope represents taking an active stance towards something. Wishing can be thought of as the make-believe view that all will be okay, while hoping is actually showing up and putting in the required work to make something happen.
Finally, denial is refusing to believe something is true despite reality, and results in not taking some required action. Hope, in contrast to denial, maintains a steadfast pledge to truth and reality.
So when something is this challenging to define, it makes measuring it in a standardized fashion really hard, and this may, in part, be one of the reasons there are relatively few formal scientific studies specifically on hope and pain.
Shane Lopez, PhD, who was a Senior Scientist at Gallup Research Center and focused his research career on studying the impact of hope used this definition: "The belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so."
It is not a stretch to grasp the link between hope and emotional well-being. (Try to think of the last time you came across a cheerful, yet hopeless person!) But is there a link between hope and physical illness?
Today, science is detailing the powerful influence hope can have on health, things like our immune systems, wound healing, how we experience pain and even longevity. In his book, "The Anatomy of Hope," Dr. Jerome Groopman, Harvard Medical School Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine, gives remarkable accounts of hope coming from people coping with what are traditionally considered hopeless illnesses and chronic pain.1
Dr. Groopman's research showed that when people are ill, two emotional states in particular are associated with hope—belief and expectation. Both of these impact the human nervous system setting off a chain reaction which increases the likelihood of improvement and recovery. It is believed that positive emotions such as hope can alter neurochemistry and inhibit pain by releasing the brain's natural painkillers called endorphins which mimic the effects of morphine.
Dr. Groopman developed his thesis that hope can be the basis of healing not only from years as an oncologist caring for those with terminal illness but from his own story of suffering. After a failed back surgery and 19 years of excruciating chronic back pain, the physician had all but given up on the medical establishment. Nothing seemed to help his pain. He was ultimately persuaded to see the same doctor who had helped Boston Celtics' Larry Bird with his chronic back pain.
After a detailed examination, Groopman's physician told him that it was his fear of pain that was causing him the most pain and that his muscles and tendons were contracted due to lack of use. His physician advised him to "ignore the pain, and as your mind re-orients its beliefs, the pain will lessen." And it did. This eloquently written true story is remarkable (but not uncommon) as many have shared similar improvements when they replaced their fear with hope.
Teaching the Brain to Fear Less
Many believe that hope may act like a stress shield for us, protecting us from the ever common negative emotions like excessive fear, sadness and anxiety and their negative effects on healing and overall wellness. Studies of workers followed over time suggest that the most hopeful employees experience significantly less illness and more well-being.
Studies also show that hope promotes healthy behaviors, such as eating a good diet, safe sex practices and quitting smoking.
So, the question becomes, "Can we promote a sense of hope and take advantage of this natural phenomenon, and if so how?"
The answer is yes, and there are many different ways this can be done. One well-described way to cultivate hope is through spirituality. This has been defined in numerous ways such as a belief in some kind of universal power that is greater than oneself, a sense of interconnectedness with all living creatures and an awareness of the purpose and meaning of life. You may see it in a similar light or completely differently. Although spirituality is often associated with religion, personal spirituality can also be developed in many different ways such as through music, art or a connection with nature. Many people discover spirituality through altruism—acts of compassion and generosity.
It has been shown that regular spiritual practices tend to improve coping skills and social support, foster feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and encourage a sense of relaxation.
One thing is for sure, and that is: hope isn't in a pill, it doesn’t cost anything and it comes with very little side-effects. So why not give it a try in a framework that makes sense to you?
Pain and Hope: 7 Ways to Stay Hopeful About Feeling Better
- Simply understanding your pain and its triggers can give you a measure of control over the pain and helps healing.
- You can still enjoy and accomplish many things—you just may have to find different and creative ways to do them.
- You may have some bad days, but you also have good days too. Focus on those good days and they will multiply.
- People who love you will help you when they understand how chronic pain works.
- Changing negative thoughts, especially fear, into positive thoughts can change your perspective on life and decrease pain.
- Be open to exploring your spirituality. Being part of something bigger than yourself will help you.
- Remember, you are not alone—millions of people have similar situations. We heal best in communities so engage in yours. Your struggles will inspire others; connect with them and support each other.
- Jerome Groopman. The anatomy of hope: How people prevail in the face of illness. 2004. Random House: New York, New York, USA
- Shane Lopez, PhD. Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others Hardcover – March 5, 2013.
- Davies B, Brenner P, Orloff S, Sumner L, Worden W. Addressing spirituality in pediatric hospice and palliative care. J Palliat Care. 2002; 18(1): 59-67.
- J Occup Health Psychol. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 17-28. doi: 10.1037/a0016998 Health Psychol. 2008 May; 27(3S): S252-9.