How many times have you been told or even said it yourself: Don’t get your hopes up! We’ve been conditioned to think that it will hurt more if we get our hopes up and then they don’t come true. We rationalize that if we set our sights lower, we won’t be as disappointed.
In the medical field, I’ve heard my colleagues say things like, “I didn’t want to give my patient false hope, so I made sure they knew the chances were slim for…a cure, a positive response to a new treatment, a speedy recovery…and so on.”
My heart always sinks when I hear things like this. Hope is a powerful force and critical ingredient for letting go of the past and moving courageously into the future. Contrary to that popular adage, we must get our hopes up if we want to heal and transform.
What is Hope?
Hope is an emotion, and just as with other emotions, hope is generated by a certain way of thinking. That means that if we practice engaging in a hopeful way of thinking, we will experience greater hope.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.”
Thus, we can think of getting our hopes up like setting an expectation for a desired future outcome. So, based on this definition of hope, why is it important that we get our hopes up?
Because, in general, we get what we expect.
To help understand why this is true about expectations, we’ll have a look at self-fulfilling prophecies and the placebo effect. Then, I will give you an effective strategy to help you get your hopes up.
When we expect something, we act in ways that line up with our expectation. These actions help to bring about the thing we expect. In the world of psychology, this principle is called the self-fulfilling prophecy.
For example, if we expect to have a fun evening with friends, we likely arrive in good spirits and eagerly engage in the conversation. Our positive attitude and engagement is felt by our friends and is reciprocated. We feel encouraged and pleased that we are being responded to well and this inspires more positive feelings and actions. Eventually, by the end of the night, we have created a fun evening for ourselves.
Conversely, if we expect to be miserable, we will likely arrive with a poor attitude and either withdraw from the conversation or contribute in negative and critical ways. This will not be received well by the people we are with, who will send subtle or not so subtle messages of their disappointment or disapproval.
These messages will further confirm our expectation that this was going to be a miserable evening, and we will end the night having experienced exactly what we expected to experience.
The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is another example of the power of hope or expectations. A placebo is an inert substance that doesn’t have any healing properties in and of itself. However, people can experience benefits from an inactive substance, such as a sugar pill, just by expecting that it will help. When this happens, it’s called the placebo effect.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that, remarkably, our bodies can adjust our experience of pain relief from a medication just by altering the information we’re given and presumably the expectations we have as a result of this information (Kam-Hansen et al., 2014).
Throughout the study, each patient received true, false, or uncertain information about the pill they were taking to help reduce their migraine pain. Sometimes they were given pain medication and were told they were taking pain medication (true condition), and sometimes they were given a placebo pill and were told it was a placebo pill, meaning it was inert (i.e., a sugar pill) and would not have an effect on their pain (also true condition).
In the false condition, they were either given the real medication and told it was a placebo (to lower expectations) or given the placebo and told it was the medication (to raise expectations). Finally, in the uncertain condition, they were given a pill and told it could either be a placebo or the medication.
The Results of Having an Expectation
Here’s what happened. People who received the pain medication experienced a greater reduction in pain than those who received the placebo pill. And, those who received the placebo pill did better than no treatment. These two findings were expected (no pun intended!).
Now here’s where it gets interesting, where we start to see the power of information and expectancies. People who were given the migraine medication, but were told it was a placebo pill experienced less pain relief than when they were told they were getting the medication (false condition to lower expectation).
In other words, the pain medicine was less effective when people didn’t believe it was medicine.
Furthermore, people who received the placebo pill and were told it was medicine (false condition to raise expectation) experienced more relief from their pain than if they were told they got the placebo pill. In fact, they experienced the same amount of relief as those who received the medicine, but were told it was a sugar pill!
In other words, the placebo was more effective when participants believed they were actually getting the medicine.
Your Beliefs are Powerful
These results, and those from hundreds of other similar studies, demonstrate that what we expect impacts us, and it does so at the very neuro-cellular level. The effects of pain medication can be blocked by what we believe. Not only that, but we can also create pain relief in our body just by believing we are doing something that is going to reduce pain.
I believe this pain relief isn’t just applicable to physical pain; our beliefs impact our experience of emotional pain, too. The bottom line of the research on the placebo effect and self-fulfilling prophecies is that we get what we expect.
And given that, it is so important that we be intentional about what we expect—what we hope for—and to use this power for our good.
Your Expectation Is Your Choice: Choose Wisely
But when we’ve been pummeled by life, it can be very hard to expect things to get better, especially when the pummeling just seems to keep on coming. It can also feel scary to expect things to get better because what if they don’t? Then what? It can feel unbearable to think of having to go through more pain and disappointment.
However, what I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of my clients is that it’s far better to hope for something and not see it realized than it is to sink in the pit of hopelessness and despair and resignation.
You see, here’s the real kicker: You are never expectation free. You’re always expecting something.
You’re either expecting nothing to change, for things to get worse, or for things to get better. Given what we know about the self-fulfilling prophecy and placebos, it’s clear that we can change our reality with our beliefs. Knowing this, we can and should use our hope for our benefit.
A Strategy for Getting Your Hope Up
I want to leave you with a strategy for how we can get our hope up. It’s a strategy I learned from my writing coach when I was going through my divorce. It was a life saver for me. Here it is:
You need to do more “What if’ing.”
But not the kind of what if’ing you’re likely doing right now. How many times have you said something like, what if I’m never happy again? What if I can’t have another baby? What if we go bankrupt? What if treatment for the illness makes it impossible to work and we lose the house? What if no one ever loves me again? What if I can’t do this?
We’re really good at imaging the worst-case scenarios. As we just saw, when we focus our attention and our thoughts on these negative scenarios, our emotions, behaviors, and our very lives begin to go in these negative directions.
Instead of coming up with worse case scenarios, try focusing on best case scenarios, or even just better case scenarios. You can do this by changing your “what if” statements.
Here are some examples: What if this turns out well for me? What if I go to bed with a smile on my face? What if there’s another way of looking at this? What if this is the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me? What if love is right around the corner?
What if I’m being prepared for something incredible? What if our needs are provided for? What if I’m not alone in this mess? What if I’m stronger than I think? What if I love the person I end up being as a result of going through this pain?
By asking “what if” in this manner, you create a little opening in your brain. You’re not telling it something definitive, like I won’t lose my job or I will love again, which could easily be rejected as not true.
Instead, you’re proposing a possibility for your mind to marinate on. Filling your mind with these positive, curious questions is a wonderful way to quickly generate a more hopeful state of being.
The next time someone tells you not to get your hopes up, try instead to double down on your hopeful beliefs, set your expectations high for what you desire, and feed your hope by creating positive what-if statements.
In other words, get your hopes up like your future depends on it—because it does.
About Dr. Michelle Pearce:
Dr. Michelle Pearce is a clinical psychologist, author, researcher, health and wellness coach, and Professor in the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Her newest book, “Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity,” uses journaling as a tool for building resilience. For more journaling prompts, check out her book at one of your favorite online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indie Bound.