Learned Hopefulness: A Life Changing Concept

Hopefulness doesn't mean simply waiting for tomorrow to bring you the best. It means working on things so that you can fulfill your aspirations. It's important to understand that this dimension, far from being a state of mind, is a strategy that you can learn.
Learned Hopefulness: A Life Changing Concept
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 17 March, 2023

When times are hard, you need a window that’s open to hope and the possibility of change and improvement. Through the window, you see a lighthouse in the distance that can guide you to the shore of well-being. However, how do you turn on that light when you’re gripped by fear and overshadowed by doubts and uncertainty that eat away at you?

Hope isn’t easy to find when you’re stressed. Moreover, life today often consists of one adversity after another, linked together like a string of beads. That said, as the Pandora effect suggests, there’s always a silver lining deep down in your soul. When you make it your own, it acts as a powerful balm.

The psychologist, Martin Seligman claims that this psychological construct isn’t a state of mind, but a habit of the mind. As such, you can train and develop it. It optimizes your well-being and promotes the best of you so you can achieve what you want.

Those who develop a more hopeful mindset are more resilient, have greater motivation, and are less likely to relapse into depression.

Man with an enlightened mind applying the hope learned
Learned hopefulness allows us to activate a more flexible mental approach.

Learned helplessness

When everything that defined you and gave you meaning falls apart, the only thing that sustains you is hope. If this fails, a space appears for depression and mental approaches to surface that corner you in a dark, bleak hole. This is learned helplessness, a concept coined by Martin Seligman in the 1970s.

Learned helplessness is a mental state in which the individual is unable to respond to adverse stimuli. In fact, they assume that no decisions, changes, or strategies will ever solve anything and the result will always be the same: more suffering.

In the 1990s, while still president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Seligman changed course. Instead of studying the mechanisms that orchestrate pathologies and emotional pain, he started to address the strategies that facilitate happiness in humans. Along with Ed Diener and Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, he became a pioneer of positive psychology.

In one of his latest books, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Hopelessness to Optimism (2018), Seligman revolutionized the concept of this dimension.

We’re programmed for hope, but sometimes forget it

The concept of learned hopefulness defines the ability to make this dimension a mental habit with which to improve our coping capacities. A research paper concerning Seligman’s book states that, in the brain, there’s a structure in the prefrontal cortex whose function is to dampen states of stress and anxiety.

The problem is that factors such as upbringing, being exposed to prolonged stressors, or having suffered trauma often cause this mechanism not to work. In effect, we’re programmed for hope, but our experiences and faulty coping strategies weaken it.

The good news is that this dimension isn’t a state of mind. In fact, it’s a habit that you can train by educating your mind, focus, and the way you process reality.

“We need hope like we need air.”

-Brené Brown-

How to develop a more hopeful mindset

One of the greatest experts and disseminators of learned hopefulness is psychologist, Dan Tomasulo. In his book, Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression, (2020) he reveals that about 80 percent of people who’ve suffered from depression will relapse at some point in their lives.

So, what happens to the 20 percent who no longer have to navigate through the grey territory of depression? The answer is simple: they’ve developed learned hopefulness. Moreover, not only have they overcome this complex clinical entity, but they’ve progressed and learned powerful resilient skills. In their minds, the negativity bias is now deactivated and they strive to achieve their dreams.

So, how do you develop a more hopeful mindset? Doctor Dan Tomasulo offers guidelines in his book. They’re as follows:

See possibilities instead of limitations

The inflexible mind only sees problems in every solution, closed doors on every path, and fears at every step. If you want to develop learned hopefulness, you must build a more open, flexible, and trusting mental approach. At every crossroads you come across, there’ll be new strategies to try and new possibilities to consider.

Restructure your negative thoughts

Negative thoughts don’t disappear like water going down a drain. Irrational and adverse reasoning must be defused through thoughtful analysis and then transformed into a healthier approach.

Don’t believe everything your mind tells you. Ask yourself if what it’s shouting at you is logical, true, and helpful.

Activate your strengths and remember your purpose

Don’t look at your insecurities. Focus on what makes you unique and what you’re good at. We all have strengths that we forget over time and that need reactivating. Review your past achievements, clarify your values and essential meanings, and remember what defines you as a person. It’ll help you to breathe.

Encourage positive emotions in your daily life

Don’t hesitate to promote new experiences that make you feel good. Explore new sensations through habits, social connection, and learning. There are endless ways of releasing serotonin and dopamine. You just have to break the monotony and start engaging in rewarding experiences.

friends applying the hope learned
One way to activate learned hopefulness is by developing rewarding social bonds.

Set motivational goals

Learned hopefulness needs goals to illuminate your horizon. These objectives will allow you to get up every day with greater impetus, desire, and motivation. They’ll give you reasons to make an effort and work on what you want.

Build deep and meaningful social relationships

Love and share your time with those who make you smile and teach you new things every day. Meet up with people who bring out the best in you and with whom conversations are exciting. Building deep and significant bonds gives meaning to your life. This means you’ll always have hope.

“Learned hopefulness emerges with a more resilient mind, with positive emotion, purpose, and nurturing social relationships.”

-Martin Seligman-

Learned hopefulness isn’t just an antidote to depression. In fact, it’s a lifestyle that acts as a springboard to social and emotional well-being. After all, while it’s true that we’re all programmed to look at the world with hope when things go wrong, it’s clear that sometimes this mechanism doesn’t work.

Try and convert the above guidelines into habits. It won’t be long before you see results.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey.
  • Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry13(4), 249–245.
  • Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. New Harbinger.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.