Shane Lopez: Hope is an ancient virtue

Making Hope Happen

The author of “Making Hope Happen” says that hope can be cultivated and shared.

Shane Lopez studies hope. What he has found is that hopeful people are more successful, healthier and happier than those who lack hope.

And the good news is that hopefulness isn’t an inborn trait, he said. People can cultivate hopefulness and share it with others.

“The revelation for me over all these years of doing this research is that hope is contagious,” he said. “The intriguing part of that ‘hope is shared’ message is that if you’re around hopeful people, you become more hopeful in time.”

Lopez is a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology and is a Gallup Senior Scientist and the research director of Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Institute. He is the chief architect of the Gallup Student Poll, a measure of hope, engagement and well-being of U.S. public school students.

Lopez spoke to Faith & Leadership about the implications of his research for individuals, organizations and leaders. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: In your book you have four messages about hope: hope matters, hope is a choice, hope can be learned, and hope can be shared with others. Can you give us a summary of those ideas?

Hope is this ancient virtue that is celebrated across cultures, across religions. Instinctually and intuitively, we believe that it matters, but when you start asking people in a town or a school or a business to really invest in hope, one of their first questions to you is, “Well, does it really matter?”

And I want to say, “You know what? You’ve been honoring hope your whole life. Part of your spiritual life is about hope; we all believe in hope, especially in America.” They still want to know the data. They want to know how hope really plays a role in their daily lives, so we’ve done a ton of studies to demonstrate the extent to which hope matters.

Hope is a choice in that we have this capacity to think about the future that’s unique to human beings, and we build that capacity over time. It’s really a personal choice that is made to either invest in this thinking about the future and your expectations about what might happen or to let each day go by passively without really becoming an active agent in your own life.

Sometimes that choice is made by an individual over time, and sometimes it’s made in the blink of an eye.

Hope can be learned: we have this innate sensibility to think about the future early on, and over time we get better and better and better at it if we’re given the right reinforcement by the right people and we have the right kind of success.

What we truly need to learn over time is that flexible, creative thinking that fills the gaps between where we are today and where we want to be down the road. It fills up the gaps between point A and point B. So that “pathways thinking” is what most people really need to spend their time learning.

But the revelation for me over all these years of doing this research is that hope is contagious. The intriguing part of that “hope is shared” message is that if you’re around hopeful people, you become more hopeful in time. If you’re around hopeless people, you become hopeless over time.

Work is being done by epidemiologists that demonstrates that positive and negative emotions and mindsets are contagious to the third degree. So in other words, my hopefulness spreads to you; you go home and you share it with someone else; and then that someone else sits with a neighbor and shares it with another person.

So it’s moving in a very predictable/meaningful way, but the same is true about hopelessness. So that’s how we temper that message -- that hope is shared. You can give it away, but you can also be an agent of despair. So you have to be cautious about how you act each day and what you tend to share with others.

Q: What is the difference between optimism and hope?

Optimism is half of hope. Think about hope as the belief that the future will be better than the present, combined with the belief that you have some power to make it so.

That first belief -- that the future will be better than the present -- is optimism. Hope adds agency to that optimism.

Agency is this word that we toss around a lot in psychology. It’s really that belief that you can write your own script, that belief that you are the hero in your own journey.

When you attach that to optimism, you’re more self-determined. You are more inclined to create a lot of strategies to get where you want to go in life. You have a greater tendency to connect with people that really can help you get the support and instruction that you need. You look for opportunities that will help you. You look for opportunities to help others.

The agency combines with optimism to give you that sense of action that’s inherent to hope.

Q: Your book focuses largely on personal goals and an individual sense of hope, but I wonder how those goals relate to larger organizational or missional goals.

In the work we’ve done at Gallup, we found that followers need four things from leaders. Stability, trust, compassion and hope are four followers’ needs, so any leader in any organization needs to keep those four needs in mind.

Followers need stability, a stable person who’s true to their word and sense of self. Trust relates to stability but is more of that emotional feeling you get when you’re around someone who is stable and is moving you in a positive direction. Compassion -- maybe it’s delivered as tough love, but the love definitely has to be there.

Then the last thing we need is hope.

We’ve done some studies of great bosses. We need hopeful leaders who create excitement about the future, who get rid of any obstacles that are in our way and then celebrate our accomplishments as we make progress and reach our goals.

Q: What can be done to teach people to see and to act upon multiple pathways?

To teach “pathways thinking,” you can stand up in front of a room as a leader and say, “Here’s where we are; here’s where we need to be; here are the four routes that we could take.”

That’s OK, but that doesn’t really teach people how to come up with their own pathways. You just did all the work for them, but when you’re pursuing the goal for the organization and you bump into obstacles, that’s the moment. That’s the teachable moment.

When you feel like, “Hey, here’s our first failure,” that’s really your first opportunity to say, “OK guys, where’s our next pathway? We did not anticipate this. We’re stuck. We need multiple ideas for how to get unstuck.”

So those teachable moments, that’s when you really call upon people to think about pathways, and it’s often best done in a group setting. You know, two, three, 20 people, however many people are around, so that you can really generate this ping-pong of ideas, you know, people throwing ideas out, and then they go back and forth, and they get bigger and better, and other people in that mix realize, “Oh, there are lots of good ideas here. There’s way more than one pathway. There’s way more than one way to get things done.”

So I would say, let’s rely more on show than tell, and when we face obstacles, view those as teachable moments, those opportunities to pull people in and get talking about the different pathways that you can take.

The last thing that I want to emphasize is that pathways thinking is best taught in the context of working on something real. When you’re working on something real, when you have a real project and there are real outcomes that are dependent on you coming up with pathways, and real time lost and real money lost if you don’t figure this out, then the urgency of it all, the excitement of it all, helps you really learn how to do this in the moment.

Q: Having to come up with multiple pathways means you’ve failed in your first attempt, right? What role does hope have in dealing with failure?

Very hopeful people see failure as another opportunity to try. I think everyone can be taught to see failure as another opportunity to try something new, and you have to start by doing that in low-risk situations.

You can’t say, “Hey, you’re going to college now, and you’re going to fail a whole bunch of times, and life will be grand.”

You have to do it when they’re young and there’s not a lot of risk. I think we need to help people get comfortable with failing in low-risk situations but then emphasize that trying is really what gets people to that finish line, not necessarily failing repeatedly.

Q: The goal isn’t failure.

Right. They’ve turned failure into a goal -- they’ll tell you these stories: Bill Gates failed so many times, and Michael Jordan got kicked off the team.

So you have to remind people that trying is really the thing that drives us to our success. Don’t celebrate every failure like you’re one step closer to the outcome you desire. It’s really that trying that we can instill in kids and adults that will get you to that outcome.

Q: In some ways, it sounds like what you’re talking about is resilience, the ability to regroup and try again. Do you think resilience is crucial to developing that mindset of multiple pathways?

I would flip that. If you look at all the research on resilience, you can only determine if someone’s resilient after the fact.

So you can only tell the story of resilience if they have bounced back from that thing that they’ve been struggling with, and then when you unpack it, you say, OK, what made them resilient?

If you read any ancient text, they will not celebrate the ancient virtue of resilience. It is not an ancient human characteristic. They’ll celebrate hope. They’ll celebrate faith. They’ll celebrate love.

Those things work together, and we use them strategically to become resilient in the end. So they are intertwined, but I see someone becoming hopeful and dealing with the circumstances of life so that when they get knocked down, they can get back up again and show the world their resilience.

Q: What role does storytelling play?

I think storytelling has a huge role, and not just in developing hope, but this idea of the future and this idea that you’re the hero in your own story.

It really shapes up when you’re 2, 3 years old and starting to think about tomorrow. Tomorrow’s fascinating to a little kid. What will we do tomorrow? Tomorrow really is magical.

So you start telling stories about what I will do tomorrow, and that is the first set of hope stories that you tell in your life. That’s exciting, and most people hold on to that storytelling capacity across their lifetimes.

If you keep yourself at the center of the story, chances are you’re a very hopeful creature. If you see yourself as the guy who’s always getting downed in an argument or you always lose out in a contest or you never get the prize you want in life, chances are you’re not so hopeful.

Q: On a personal and on an institutional/organizational level, storytelling is so powerful.

That reminds me of this company that was going through some big changes, and they were trying to get rid of the old script and start with the new, and one of their organizational development people said, “We’re going to burn the scripts.”

She said, “I mean, literally. Bring whatever document you think represents the old company and what we were doing that we shouldn’t have been doing. Bring that, and we’re going to burn them in a barrel.”

And she did exactly that, and she said, “Now, we need to write the new story.”

I’ve done that with students. I brought in a bunch of flat river stones to college freshmen, and I gave them a Sharpie and I said, “Write the name of the teacher in your lifetime that made you doubt that you could succeed.”

And they wrote the name on the river stone, and at the end of class, we went to the lake in the middle of campus and we threw the stones in and we said, “OK, you no longer need to worry about that person. Now you get to write a story without that person as a character, because they’re not at college. They’re in high school. They were in middle school. They’re behind you. Now you have a clean slate. New time. New story.”

Q: Has your faith influenced your work?

Yes. We’re Catholic. We’ve been Catholic forever. Lopez is Spanish, but most of my people are French Acadian, Cajun, and we were exiled from France, and then we came to Canada.

We were exiled because of our religion again, and then we ended up in south Louisiana, and the place I’m from, New Iberia, is 85 percent Catholic. So being Catholic is a sign of resilience.

We fought to be Catholic. We had to leave two homes to be Catholic, my ancestors did. So that for us represents a story of strength and a story of hope and a story of resilience. So that story for us is part of our overall faith.

So for me, being Cajun and being Catholic means that I’m from a long line of hopeful people who have practiced a religion that we valued so much over the years that we continue to fight for the right to do so, and it’s part of who we are.