It is Sunday afternoon, December 20th. As I write this, I am sitting in the back yard (if you can call it that) of a little townhouse in Melbourne where I live with my husband, dog and cat. The sun is out. The cat is sitting in her favourite wicker chair and the dog is probably on his favourite spot on the lounge. My husband is having an afternoon nap. For those things, I am truly grateful. However. This morning, I was still hopeful that I would be heading off tomorrow to see my friends and family in Sydney for Christmas. That hopeful state has since been withdrawn as the Victorian premier has announced that he will be closing the borders as of midnight tonight, due to a recent outbreak of the dreaded Covid-19 virus in Sydney. After months of lockdown, and numerous other cancelled trips, I had been looking forward to ending the year on a bright note. Alas it was not to be. However, given that it is still 2020, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
I now find it ironic that my mother-in-law had asked me to prepare and read out a small prayer on the topic of hope for the Sunday service that morning (my husband’s parents are both ministers). I admit, I had not given myself much time to prepare it as I had spent the last two days busily running about buying Christmas presents, and generally preparing for the expected week away. On Saturday, the premier had announced a “traffic light” permit system for returning travellers from NSW. On Saturday, I still held hope as were not going to be travelling anywhere near the “red zone”. By the time the service ended at 11:15 on Sunday December 21st, that hope was gone.
So I found myself sitting through and participating in a service all about ‘hope’ without really giving it much thought I admit. It was not until after the service, when I arrived home (to a message from a friend on Facebook asking me if I had seen the news) that I really understood what hope was and was not. It was not until then, when my hopes were finally and utterly redacted, that I realised what hope truly was. Hope is the absence of hopelessness. Or in other words, the presence of a potential future that contains a desired outcome. Without that future, hope vanishes.
Hope as the antithesis of depression.
Counsellors and psychologists often use the K10 as a measure of psychological distress. The K10 is a short 10 question survey which asks clients a series of questions about their mental health state. Question four on the K10 asks about ‘hopelessness’. Its placement on this widely used measure of anxiety and depression is a testament to the importance of hope as a measure of wellbeing. The lack of hope signifies something is missing, something important and necessary for good mental health. A state of hopelessness certainly makes it very difficult to get out of bed in the morning. A sense that nothing good will happen, that your efforts are useless or that nothing holds any meaning, are among some of the hallmarks, and clinical symptoms, of depression. If hopelessness is a symptom of depression then hope, its opposite, is a sign of a healthy individual. But what is hope, really?
We often use the word hope in everyday language without giving much thought to its deeper meaning. How often have you heard yourself say, “I hope I get through these next set of traffic lights” or “I hope my boss doesn’t notice that I’m running five minutes late.” Hope is so much a part of our everyday language and expression that its true meaning and importance are often overlooked. So, for a basic definition I turned to Webster’s dictionary online. Hope is defined firstly as an intransitive verb, meaning “to cherish a desire with anticipation or to want something to happen or be true”. That, I would say is how most of us use hope in everyday language, as in the examples I give above. However, the transitive definition hints at a deeper, more nuanced meaning, “to desire with expectation of obtainment or fulfillment” and “to expect with confidence”. Webster’s also links the definition of hope to the word “trust”. Hope, it seems, is something more than a simple desire or wish as it is sometimes defined. Hope is a desired outcome expected to come about.
Hope, a vital ingredient
In psychotherapy research there is a concept called the “common factors approach”. This came about when a bunch of researchers got together and did a lot of reading of many studies of different types of therapy models, compared apples to oranges so to speak, to see which therapy style was the most effective. They ultimately found that there was little difference between therapy styles. All were more or less equally effective in helping clients to change in the ways they wanted to. This has come to be known as the ‘dodo effect’. The idea borrowed from Alice in Wonderland when the dodo bird declared, “All have won, and all shall get prizes!” The next logical question that these researchers asked was, well if the type of therapy isn’t what matters, then what is it? What is it about therapy that clients find actually helpful?
It was from this research that the idea of the common factors approach emerged. That is, there are factors similar to all types of therapy models that form the key ingredients of change in therapy. You see, psychology has always had a bit of an inferiority complex, it has always wanted to be seen as a ‘real science’ (ignoring that people are not as easy to study as other mammals or nature in general). In order to be accepted as ‘scientific’, psychology has tried to measure the effectiveness of specific, (usually manualised) psychological approaches on certain populations, comparing this approach with that approach, and generally attempting to treat people as laboratory specimens and mental health issues as biological diseases. These approaches are similar to those used in medicine and clinical trial research which prioritizes random controlled trials and generalizable statistics. What these researchers discovered was that the answers to what works in therapy are not that ‘clinical’ it seems, but more human and relational in general. The four common factors were identified as
- Extra-therapeutic factors (things external to the therapy sessions such as getting a new job, relationships etc.)
- The strength of the therapeutic relationship
- Theoretical knowledge
- Hope and expectancy
As you can see, hope forms a vital ingredient in the value of counselling and without it, therapy usually stalls. Quoting psychotherapist Jerome Frank in his article, Hope – the neglected common factor, Denis O’Hara echoes the importance of instilling hope in counselling as he notices, “Hopelessness can retard recovery or even hasten death, while mobilisation of hope plays an important part in many forms of healing.”
So there you have it. Hope gives us energy, motivation and direction. Without it, we flounder, flop and fail to thrive. The year 2020 has been a terrible year for humanity and we have all suffered to a degree due to a variety of factors, the covid-19 pandemic being just one of them. Though I started writing this post 10 days ago it is now the eve of 2021. If ever there was a need for hope, now is that time. Not just the simple hope that we throw about mindlessly, but the hope that is bound in faith, trust and gratitude – the kind of hope that I imagine Christmas was meant to be about.
So here is my little prayer for hope that I shared that day. It is my sincere ‘hope’ you find it comforting in some way.
A prayer of hope
Help us to live in hope, rather than in fear.
And help us to understand that hope equals faith when it is linked with love
Teach us to live with hope in our hearts, so that we can fill our days with quiet assurance, instead of anxiety.
Please shine a light where there is darkness.
And let truth, love, joy and peace reign instead of hate, lies, fear and grief.
Right now, the world needs hope more than ever!
For hope is the spark that sets good things in motion,
So hope turns to gratitude, and gratitude to peace.
We trust that your light will show us the way and to help us
To live in hope, love and fearlessness.
 Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., & Hubble, M. L. (1999). The heart & soul of change : what works in therapy / [edited by] Mark A. Hubble, Barry L. Duncan, and Scott D. Miller. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.