As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I remember how, from an early age, I would get very anxious about all the negative things happening in the world. I worried about climate change, about people getting sick and dying, about violence, about marriages breaking up — everything. I didn’t know then that I was not “crazy” or losing my mind; that this was the result of me being able to feel so deeply the consequences of things that happened. It scared me. It was just too big for me to comprehend.
Since then, I learned that this is not uncommon for highly sensitive people. Born with the “gift” (and sometimes challenge) of processing and feeling the world deeply, we can, for better or worse, often see how things will go wrong before they do — or at least how they could go wrong. And even when we know it’s unlikely, we can’t help but think through every possibility. In other words, we can be worriers.
Over the years I learned to deal with this anxiety in a better way (although I can still be overwhelmed by the world and all the things that could happen). One of the things that helped me most was hope. At first, hope was some fuzzy feeling that I thought would just “happen” to you. As if you either were or were not a hopeful person, or only felt hope when it came out of nowhere.
But then I discovered that hope is a skill you can actually practice — and it can be life-changing.
Hope Isn’t Something You Feel, It’s Something You Practice
Brené Brown, a researcher who studies courage and vulnerability, explores what makes us hopeful in her bestselling book, The Gifts of Imperfection. And what she discovered gave me a totally different perspective on hope.
According to Brown, hope is not an emotion but a way of thinking.
It’s our perspective and outlook that determines whether we are hopeful. The “emotion” of hope just plays a supporting role.
Which is good, because while you can’t really make yourself “feel” differently, you can train yourself to think differently.
According to Brown, to be hopeful, we need three things:
- We need to set realistic goals. This ensures that our hopes are pinned to something achievable — we’re not setting ourselves up for crushing our own hopes.
- We need to approach our goals in a practical way. We have to think about ways to achieve those goals, deal with disappointment when things don’t work right away, and take the time to come up with alternative routes where needed.
- We need to believe in ourselves. Friends and mentors are great for this during those moments when we experience self-doubt.
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So, if we take this definition, hope is more of a skill. And it can be a learned skill. We can train ourselves to be more hopeful, and therefore, more resilient in dealing with life. But it won’t happen overnight. As you probably know, changing the way we think isn’t so easy at all! So, how can we get more hopeful in our thinking?
3 Simple Exercises to ‘Train’ Hope
Changing the way you think can sound as hard as changing the way you feel. But it’s not — our thinking is surprisingly flexible, and simple mental exercises can actually change our thought patterns if they’re repeated often enough. Here are three exercises I practice almost daily to cultivate hope.
1. Thankfulness (‘Daily Gratitudes’)
Nothing creates optimism and hope as quickly as gratitude for what you already have. And this practice is also the easiest:
At the end of each day, write down three things you are thankful for. They can be things that went well, things you enjoyed, even very little things. For example: “The sun was shining, my employer gave me a compliment, and I had a really nice conversation with my partner.”
Then, for each of these things, write down what you contributed.
In our example: “I took the time to go out and enjoy the sun. I really persevered in doing a good job, even when I was tired. I wasn’t looking at my phone, but made myself open to conversation and made an effort to listen.”
In this way, you help yourself to see what part your own effort played in the good things that happened to you. That doesn’t just fuel optimism, it builds our belief in ourselves. And, as Brown noted, that is perhaps the most elusive component of hope.
2. Flexibility Exercise (‘Meet Your Need’)
We all have needs. We need comfort, action, food, company… you name it! Having more than one way to fill your needs is empowering and makes you less vulnerable. So, pick one of your needs. It doesn’t matter which one. As an example, I’ll choose something small: I’ve had a very bad day at work, and I’m in desperate need of a hug and reassurance! But all my friends are out, I do not have a partner, and there’s only Netflix ahead of me tonight.
Now, you’re going to come up with at least five different options to get your need fulfilled. At least one of those options has to be one you don’t need anyone else for. Another option should be out-of-the-box. And one should be not realistic at all, but helps you to be creative and have a little fun with this exercise.
So, to get my hug and reassurance:
- I can wrap myself really tight in a nice fuzzy blanket, make myself a hot drink, and watch a romantic comedy on TV.
- I can book a massage and have skin-on-skin contact in this way.
- I can offer to my neighbor to watch her baby for a bit this evening. Really… baby cuddles are so comforting!
- I can get a dog or a cat. (That’s a little out of the box — how likely am I to go and adopt an animal in the next few hours? And is this a good reason to commit to an animal? But it would get the need met, so it belongs on the list. Remember, we’re just brainstorming.)
- I can message an SOS to the universe and hope for aliens to come and hug me. (I told you one was unrealistic, right?)
That’s five different options that help you meet your need for a comforting hug.
3. The 1-Minute Challenge
Have you heard of the mindset theory by Carol Dweck? She talks about a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset as two different ways you can think about capabilities, mistakes, and learning. In short: people with a fixed mindset will think that failure means they have reached the end of their abilities. People with a growth mindset will think that failure is an opportunity to grow.
You can see how this relates to training hope. If you see failure as the “end of the road” (a fixed mindset), you will not feel very hopeful when things get hard. If instead you can see hardship as an opportunity to grow, you will embrace those moments in a much more hopeful way.
Again, the feeling of hope simply emerges from how you’re thinking about the situation.
You can train yourself in this mindset by devoting (at least) one minute a day to learning something new. This can be anything, like an art, language, skill, or something social.
Of course, you will almost definitely end up spending more than one minute a day on this — especially as it becomes enjoyable. But you only have to promise yourself to spend that one, single minute, which is such an easy goal that it becomes much more likely you’ll follow through. And even the effort of a single minute (like a quick Google search, or taking the minute to download a training app) counts as progress.
It keeps you in the habit of growing — and seeing yourself succeed.
As a result of this habit, I have learned some Spanish, with nothing more than a free app and a handful of minutes every day. At first I decided to do it for a month, but I got so hooked that I did it for a full year! After the year, I could read easy Spanish books and newspapers. Looking back, I never thought I’d ever be able to do this. But now I feel hopeful that I could become fluent if I keep going.
That hope transfers to other things, too. After the Spanish quest, I decided to try to fix our fence, something I wouldn’t consider myself skilled at. It took me weeks and some blood, sweat, and mistakes. But… my fence is up!
By learning something new every day, you will be able to look back every now and then and see that you are capable of doing more than you thought you could. You will learn strategies along the way and boost your self-esteem.
Hope Springs Internal
As you try these exercises, be kind to yourself. Learning any skill takes effort and perseverance, but hopefulness is a skill that pays off tremendously. If you set realistic goals and practice thankfulness and flexibility, you won’t just feel less anxious and more hopeful; you will start to experience yourself as a more capable, strong person. And it feels good to be strong — especially when you’re already strong on the inside.