What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Hope/Hopelessness

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term is hope/hopelessness.


Wikipedia defines hope as “an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.”  Psychologist Charles Snyder identified three main elements related to hope: goals, finding pathways to achieve those goals, and having the agency to take action toward achieving those goals.  He described hope as a cognitive skill as well as a potential mechanism in therapy to help people overcome barriers to achieving their goals.

Wikipedia explains that hope plays an important role in health.  Hope can motivate people to pursue healthy behaviours.  It can also alter the experience of pain by triggering the release of endorphins. It can also improve the prognosis for chronic and life-threatening illness, and enhance quality of life.  Hope appears to play a role in the placebo effect.


The opposite of hope is, obviously, hopelessness, something that many of us living with mental illness struggle with at some point.  It can be a symptom of depression, and it’s a major risk factor for suicide.  

An article on PsychCentral identifies 9 different types of hopelessness, taken from the book Hope In The Age of Anxiety (by Anthony Scioli and Henry Biller): alienation, forsakenness, uninspired, powerlessness, oppression, limitedness, doom, captivity, and helplessness.  These are based on disruption in the ability to meet the fundamental needs of mastery, attachment, and survival.  At first glance, these types strike me as being related to but not necessarily the same as hopelessness.

Connection to depression

The hopelessness theory of depression identifies three dimensions of causal attributions of negative life events:

  • internal to external (self-caused vs. caused by others)
  • stable to unstable (enduring vs. changeable)
  • global to specific (affecting everything vs. limited to a specific situation)

People who attribute negative events to internal, stable, and global causes are more likely to become hopeless, making them more vulnerable to becoming depressed and suicidal under conditions of stress.  This is a type of diathesis-stress model, meaning these cognitive styles don’t increase the risk of depression without the presence of stressful events.

A hopeless subtype of depression has been proposed (although it’s not an official diagnosis), in which a high degree of hopelessness is enough to trigger the onset of depression.  Hopeless depression is characterized by 5 or more of the following symptoms: 

This was the first I’d heard of the hopelessness theory of depression. My initial impression was that it makes a lot of sense.  I don’t know if this has always been the case, but when depressed, I definitely tend to have stable and global attributions for negative events.  I sometimes think difficult situations arise from internal causes, but even when I attribute things externally, I feel very powerless in response, which probably isn’t good either.  There are certainly times when I would meet the proposed criteria for hopeless depression, but when my depression is at its worst I fit much more into the melancholic subtype.

How do you balance hope and hopelessness in your life or your illness?


You can find the rest of the what is… series in the Psychology Corner.

Book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle, 2nd ed., by Ashely L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle. The revised and expanded 2nd edition is now available on Amazon.

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16 thoughts on “What Is… Hope/Hopelessness”

      1. muffin. roughin life is tough but you are much more even with the shit. here there is a local woman i met whom lived on the street for two years. the mayors and powers that be saved her. but can she be trusted? her name? amy daeschel. think about amy~

  1. This is so insightful and clearly delineated. I can relate to a lot of it–definitely the “internal” thing. “This is my fault; I’m weak; I’m a failure.” The stable/unstable aspect is interesting. I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell if bad mood is simply that, and it will pass. But then the panic I get is, “What if I destroy all my relationships before it passes?” which scares the crap out of me. The global/specific is an issue too. After all the people who’ve bailed on me in my life, it’s hard as hell to trust that someone new won’t. Because it keeps happening!!

    Thanks for providing all this food for thought! What’s the melancholic subtype of depression (and other subtypes)? I see a blog post there!! Curious!

    1. Melancholic depression tends to involve anhedonia, psychomotor slowing, and a depressed mood that’s different from sadness. Other subtypes/specifiers are atypical (increased appetite and sleep, more mood reactivity), catatonic, and postpartum.

  2. This is an interesting theory. If hope involves having pathways to your goals, then to me hopelessness means feeling like there are no pathways. Especially when it feels like there are no pathways anywhere (global) and will never be (stable), that’s when I am especially prone to suicidal thinking. Because I can set all the goals I want and be as motivated as I want, but won’t be able to achieve them.

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