What Is… Hope and Hopelessness

"Never lose hope" spelled out with pebbles on the ground
Image by Muhammad Haseeb Muhammad Suleman from Pixabay 

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s terms are hope and 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.

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

One article said that mindfulness meditation can increase hopefulness by decreasing stress. That’s all well and good if stress is what’s standing in the way, but otherwise, I’m not really seeing the connection between mindfulness and being hopeful.


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 things 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:

  • sadness
  • slowed voluntary responses
  • suicidal thinking
  • difficulty falling asleep
  • fatigue
  • self-blame
  • concentration difficulties
  • slowed movement (psychomotor retardation)
  • brooding or worrying
  • reduced self-esteem
  • dependency

Hopelessness vs. lack of hope

In my mind, there’s a difference between an absence of hope and the presence of hopelessness. I see hopelessness as a more active emotional state that’s associated with despair. It’s like the opposite of hopefulness. The absence of hope is more passive; there’s just no apparent reason to feel any, and you get plunked down somewhere in the middle of hopefulness and hopelessness.

For me, the absence of hope isn’t connected with suicidal thinking, while hopeless despair can be. That absence has become my baseline state, while active hopelessness only flares up every so often. It’s been several years since my depressive illness became treatment-resistant and hope became a thing of the past, and it’s been long enough that it’s hard to recall what it felt like to be hopeful for my own future.

I’ve gotten used to a world without hope. It’s a darker world than the one I used to live in, but I’ve adapted.

How do you balance hope, lack of hope, and/or 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 Edition, by Ashley L. Peterson

Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic look at the different potential pieces that might fit into your unique depression puzzle.

It’s available on Amazon and Google Play.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

9 thoughts on “What Is… Hope and Hopelessness”

  1. 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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