Hope: How do we stay hopeful?

When it comes to mental health, one thing I found that is incredibly powerful is the potential for hope. In a beautiful quote, American poet Emily Dickinson says: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words — And never stops at all.”

So when times are tough, how do we hold on to hope?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Writer, performer, storyteller, and author of How to Be Hopeful Bernadette Russell speaks in length about the importance of hope here.

Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja

Expert SquareSpace Web Designer, former cookery chef, public speaker, and Sophisticated Cloud founder Claudia Tinnirello

Publicity consultant, media trainer, and author of Breaking into the Media Sandra Coffey

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Rebecca Solnit speaks to Slate on finding hope during the pandemic:

Books looked at this week:

Bernadette Russell: How to Be Hopeful: Your Toolkit to Rediscover Hope and Help Create a Kinder World

Rebecca Solnit: Hope in The Dark

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 24 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

When it comes to mental health, one thing I found that is incredibly powerful is the potential for hope. In a beautiful quote, American poet Emily Dickinson says: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words — And never stops at all.”

So when times are tough, how do we hold on to hope?

ANGELA KARANJA
CLAUDIA TINNIRELLO

That was parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja and expert SquareSpace Web Designer, former cookery chef, public speaker, and Sophisticated Cloud founder Claudia Tinnirello on hope.

On to our first book by writer, performer, and storyteller Bernadette Russell. How to Be Hopeful: Your Toolkit to Rediscover Hope and Help Create a Kinder World is an incredible guide to harnessing hope around us. Russell shared some of her time with me this week. You can find the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com, but here she is:

BERNADETTE RUSSELL

The core ideas in her hope manifesto she says includes:

Courage: We can and should choose to be hopeful. But to do so, especially at times of hardship or adversity, requires courage. Be kind to yourself, start small, allow your courage and your hope to grow. This can be noticing one beautiful thing every day, or creating a collection of hopeful items.

Purpose: Having a purpose or an aim gives us energy and focus, something specific and achievable to hope for and act upon. Purpose also gives meaning to our actions, which helps give us the energy to persevere.

Values: Knowing what we believe in and understanding why we’re pursuing our purpose or aim gives us direction and focus, whatever comes our way. Knowing that we’ll always be able to hold on to our values, that we’ll be committed to them and give the best we can, fuels our hope.

Community: It’s much easier to persevere if you have a group of like-minded people working towards a common goal. If you get tired or weary, you can let the group take over for a while, so it’s not all on you. It’s also more fun.

Action: Hope is believing in the possibility of change, and change requires action. Acting on our hopes creates more hope. Even small steps empower us and give us confidence.

Russell mentions identifying simple actions that make us feel better when we’re down as part of a Wellness Recovery Action Plan. These things can also be put into one of three categories: do they distract, relax or energise you, or is it a combination of these things? Other things include breathing deeply for a few seconds each time, apparently we need to take breaks every 90 to 120 mins in order to recalibrate. Or writing down one thing you achieved every day and something positive it revealed about you.

She also harnesses her own power of storytelling, encouraging you to tell or record the story of your life focusing on the positives. Apparently when we focus on happy memories our brains produce serotonin, so we get a rush of pleasure. And sharing these stories with others helps to pay it forward. Or listing five things that make life worthwhile or enjoyable for three weeks every single day, and visualise what you’d like your future to look like and verbalise it.

If times are tough and you are feeling low or defeated by what you perceive as a failure, restore your positivity by remembering what you are really good at while also committing to working on your weaknesses, just a little, one day at a time. And if something went wrong, flsee it as a learning opportunity.

Laughter and play is also important. She recommends rediscovering the simple joy in playing games like we did as kids, or sharing laughter with friends can give us an endorphin rush and smiling can release dopamine and serotonin.

And nature can remind us of resilience, of the wealth and richness that we are surrounded by, and also that things come in cycles. If you’re feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by a seemingly insurmountable problem, finding a purpose can also help you by providing another focus. Think of something you’ve always wanted to do and break it down in to small manageable chunks. Purpose can help us be hopeful.

Brain training is also important, so the next time something good happens, allow yourself to enjoy the positive feelings that occur and try to stay with them for a few moments – taking in the experience and the detail of what you can see, smell, taste and hear.

Support networks are vital to maintain positive mental health so that you don’t have to face enormous challenges alone. Hence write a list of people in your support network. Take time to consider who is best for different scenarios and make sure you have their up to date information.

I found the chapter on death particularly interesting because although it’s inevitable, we tend to put a grim spin on it. It’s all about living your life to the fullest, which means thinking about what you want to do before you die. There are ways of finding hope in the dark.

Acts of kindness are also necessary to feel hope. Neuroscience has shown that when we help others our brains release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, often referred to as a ‘Helper’s High’. These hormones can make us feel happier and counter the effect of the stress hormone cortisol. Hence completing acts of kindness regularly and working or sharing your skills with your community is incredibly rewarding.

One of my favourite areas covered is the power of positive news. Taking a conscious break from negative stories to acknowledge that, despite them, there are good things and good people too is really important.

So subscribe to as many positive publications as you can; on social media and the internet, engage with people and organisations who promote constructive journalism and positive news; share constructive and hope-filled stories with as many people as you can; avoid negative people; and read beyond the headlines if something has piqued your curiosity because it’s not about ignoring bad news but being more open to everything. Restrict your intake of negative news per day.

She recommends choosing to be more active with what’s happening with the future. This can be through being the change that you love, whether through changing your diet with meat alternatives, or if you have your own garden, growing your own food. Or how about walking and cycling to places more. Or sharing, making, fixing, upcycling, repurposing in terms of shopping. We can’t singlehandedly change the world but doing small acts, whether it’s letter writing or petitions or fundraising, it may feel less bleak especially when you have others to share it with.

Our final book is by prominent American writer Rebecca Solnit called Hope in The Dark. The book, in many ways, is of its moment – it was written against the tremendous despair at the height of the Bush administration’s powers and the outset of the war in Iraq. Here is Solnit

REBECCA SOLNIT

Solnit believes this is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It is also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both. 

That means facing the fact there has been devastating wars and the prospect of a climate change shift. Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the 21st century has brought, including the movements, heroes and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.

This has been a truly remarkable decade for movement-building, social change and deep shifts in ideas, perspective and frameworks for large parts of the population (and, of course, backlashes against all those things).

The tremendous human rights achievements – not only in gaining rights but in redefining race, gender, sexuality, embodiment, spirituality and the idea of the good life – of the past half-century have flowered during a time of unprecedented ecological destruction and the rise of innovative new means of exploitation.

She also quotes Virginia Woolf who wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to say, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty there is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.

She also adds that hope is an ax you
break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.

To be effective, activists have to make strong, simple, urgent demands, at least some of the time—the kind of demands that fit on stickers and placards, the kind that can be shouted in the street by a thousand people. And they have to recognize that their victories may come as subtle, complex, slow changes instead, and count them anyway.

Activism itself can generate hope because it already constitutes an alternative and turns away from the corruption at center to face the wild possibilities and the heroes at the edges or at your side. And belief Solnit says can be more effective than violence. Violence is the power of the state; imagination and nonviolence the power of civil society. She also suggests that joy is an inevitable consequence of activism.

Nonviolence, anti-nuclear activist and author Jonathan Schell argues, has in the last century become an increasingly powerful force in the world, a counterforce to war and to violence, and with that more and more power has come to belong to the ordinary citizenry.

Solnit’s own inquiry into the grounds for hope has received two great reinforcements in recent years. One came from the recognition of how powerful are the altruistic, idealistic forces already at work in the world. 
Vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives – our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations – are in essence made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.

The second reinforcement came out of her investigation of how human beings respond to major urban disasters, from the devastating earthquakes in San Francisco (in 1906) and Mexico City (in 1985) to the blitz in London and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In most disasters the majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic and creative.

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change. One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history. Despair is also often premature: it’s a form of impatience as well as of certainty.

Solnit says we need litanies or recitations or monuments to these victories, so that they are landmarks in everyone’s mind. Memory of joy and liberation can become a navigational tool, an identity, a gift.

So to sum up:

Russell says in How To Be Hopeful that it’s essential that we seek out, collect and share all kinds of hopeful stories, to inspire ourselves and others, to help us find the patch of blue sky on a gloomy day. And to hold on to courage, purpose, values, community, and action.

Solnit says in Hope in the Dark that together we are very powerful, and we have a seldom-told, seldom-remembered history of victories and transformations that can give us confidence that, yes, we can change the world because we have many times before. We need a litany, a rosary, a sutra, a mantra, a war chant of our victories. The past is set in daylight, and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.

I’ve been grateful to speak to so many this week on hope, including on Twitter Spaces, so please join us on our weekly discussion.

And we end with publicity consultant and media trainer Sandra Coffey on her views on hope. And if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe!

SANDRA COFFEY

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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