In the late 1950s, the psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance brought an experiment to two elementary schools in Minneapolis to find the secret sauce of creative fulfillment. Nestled between a very large number of tests, he asked children a seemingly innocuous question: What are you in love with? He then followed up with the children during the next twenty years to see which of his tests could predict adult creativity.
Torrance was astonished that the extent to which children had a future image of themselves that they were in love with was a better predictor for creative fulfillment in adulthood than any of his tests for scholastic promise and school achievement. He wrote:
“Life’s most energizing and exciting moments occur in those split seconds when our struggling and searching are suddenly trans- formed into the dazzling aura of the profoundly new, an image of the future.... One of the most powerful wellsprings of creative energy, outstanding accomplishment, and self-fulfillment seems to be falling in love with something— your dream, your image of the future.”
Positive images of the future carry us forward to our destiny, despite the inevitable twists and turns of life. We each have a destiny, a best possible future. Yet we are constantly getting in our own way, losing sight of that future. In the process, we lose hope.
The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that there are two very different realms of human existence. In the "Deficiency Realm", we are motivated by what we lack. We try to force the world to conform, as if we are screaming “Love me!” “Accept me!” “Respect me!”
Entering the "Being Realm" is like replacing a clouded lens with a clear lens. Suddenly we see the world and people for what they actually are—not as a means to our own end—but as an end in themselves. We admire the sacredness of each person and recognize they are on their own journey of self-actualization.
We also open to opportunities for growth. When we are no longer primarily motivated by deficiency, we can explore the full richness of life—the joyful just as much as the forlorn—with curiosity and acceptance. Defenses down, we finally see the world’s beauty clearly, as well as the beautiful possibilities in our lives.
In recent years, psychologists have begun to chart the psychology behind imagination, hope, and possibility. What is becoming clear is that we don’t need to be slaves to our past; we can navigate the future. There is a toolbox for hope, habits you can learn that will help you point a compass to your positive destiny. While much has been written about the toolbox of positive psychology, there has never existed a unifying theory of hope. Until now.
In his new book Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression, clinical psychologist Dan Tomasulo has put together a gem of a resource, a once-in-a-lifetime reading experience. You will learn how to make a profound shift in perspective and set yourself free from the shackles of your mind. I can think of no better guide; Tomasulo is one of the most thoughtful, compassionate humans I know—not to mention an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful clinical positive psychologist.
This book is not Pollyannaish but wise. Tomasulo doesn’t tell you to ignore the reality of your suffering; he teaches you how restore balance by increasing awareness and reframing what your future could be. This book will help you harness the gift of your imagination to get in touch—more deeply than you probably have ever been before—with your greatest strengths and highest possibilities in life.
In the framing of Maslow, this book will help you transcend the Deficiency Realm, and in the words of Tomasulo, tune into the “hope channel.” You may have gone your entire life, up to this point, with a grainy picture of your future. While a clearer picture won’t magically sweep all negative possibilities out of your life, you will learn to put them in perspective. By refocusing on the positive potential that already lies within, you will restore a greater sense of hope than you ever thought was possible.
"Focusing on what can be done in the future rather than on what happened in the past is key to understanding how hope can help", notes Tomasulo. Toward this end, he offers three findings that emerge from the literature on hope that are helpful right now:*
- Recalibrate goals. As longer-term goals become more uncertain, there is a considerable risk of depression. Micro-goals can recalibrate our focus, allowing us to reengage. This is the equivalent of putting a cooling pad on your laptop. Think about ways that you can accomplish goals within brief time limits. Something you can plan, expect you can do, and accomplish in 20-30 minutes, or even a couple of hours will awaken your hope circuit. What generates hope is the belief you can control some aspects of your future. Planning a meal, taking a walk, answering three emails, making the bed, cleaning the closet all have tremendous value in helping you reengage and feel better about your life in those moments. Hope is generated when we can detect and expect to have control in the future. Micro-goalsetting can help us get there.
- Express gratitude, kindness, and compassion. Hope isn’t something we either have or don’t have. Instead, it is cultivated and regulated by engaging in small doses of positivity. The scale between positive and negative thoughts is a balance between pebbles and feathers. Negative thoughts are more potent because of a negativity bias—they are like pebbles on a balance scale. Worrying has helped us survive, but these pebbles can tip the scale and keep us in a downward spiral if we worry too much. Positive thoughts are like feathers. They can outweigh the pebbles—but you need a lot of them. Being intentionally positive can restore a necessary balance. It is in these small but genuine ways that accumulated positivity can help hope gain momentum toward a tipping point. Regularly thanking people and making an intentional effort at being kind can add the needed feathers to you and others and help tip the scale in the other directions. They are not incidental.
- Cherish Relationships. A survey by the Royal Society of Arts with The Food Foundation earlier in April found that once the COVID-19 crisis is over, an overwhelming majority of Britons (85%) want some of the personal or social changes from their lockdown experience to continue. Only 9% of Britons want to go back to their “normal” life. Better relationships were a major part of this finding. A stronger sense of their local community was reported by 40% of the respondents in this survey, and a similar amount were more engaged with family and friends. This is how you add feathers by the bushel. By developing better relationships now, they are building a foundation for what Maier and Seligman said matters most: “… expectations of a better future…”
Our most precious human capacity is our most available and renewable resource—and is never further away than our next thought.
This post will be the last one for my Beautiful Minds blog, which I've had the privilege of writing the past 12 years. My blog started with Psychology Today while I was in graduate school and then moved to Scientific American in 2013 at the very start of the Scientific American Blogs Network (I am very grateful to Bora Zivkovic for giving me the opportunity). I am looking forward to new vistas and writing more frequently on my personal website at scottbarrykaufman.com/blog. If you'd like to keep up on my writings, you can follow me on there. Thanks to everyone who has supported this blog from its inception. It's been quite the journey for me, and I hope this is only the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
* These suggestions for applying the science of hope are drawn from Learned Hopefulness and have appeared in Dr. Tomasulo’s Health and Wellness column in The Two River Times.
Note: Portions of this article were adapted from my foreword to Learned Hopefulness.