Hope Empowers Patients Towards Recovery

by Paul Bedson
Winter 2015, Living Well Magazine

Without hope, we wouldn’t bother to get out of bed in the morning. “Hope is not just a psychological luxury, it is a biological imperative.” Life only moves forward with the hope of something being achieved, attained, accomplished or completed.

But what exactly is hope? How can it be defined? Is it the same as optimism… or wishful thinking?

Scientific approaches for examining hope did not really begin until the 1950s, when mental health professionals defined hope in terms of positive goal expectancies. Nowadays, there is increasing scientific evidence that hope changes us physiologically and psychologically.  Hope makes a difference to wellbeing and recovery from illness.

Hope is an optimistic attitude of mind, based on an expectation of positive outcomes in one’s life. The hopeful attitude is accompanied by positive feelings. Hope is sometimes mistakenly associated with optimism or ‘wishful thinking’, but whereas wishful thinking encourages passivity and creates the fantasy that everything will be alright, hope is more proactive. Hopeful people not only have a positive expectation, they also explore ways of achieving their goals and are prepared to take action.

Optimism and wishful thinking are often expressed in the good, old Australian idiom: “She’ll be right Mate! No worries!”

Associate Professor, Penny Schofield, a Melbourne behavioural scientist, who conducted a study of 421 advanced bowel cancer patients in 2006, said there is a subtle but important difference between being optimistic or positive and being hopeful. “Optimism is a sense of faith that everything is going to turn out OK in the face of adversity, whereas we define hope as having the will and the way to achieve a desired goal.”

Schofield’s research showed that cancer patients with a sense of hope, rather than optimism, have reported a better quality of life and have lived longer.

Dr Jerome Groopman, author of ‘The Anatomy of Hope’ (2004) showed in his research that during the course of illness, belief and expectation – two mental states associated with hope – have a positive impact on the nervous system which, in turn, set off a chain of biochemical reactions that makes improvement and recovery more likely. Without hope, patients can become prey to ongoing anxiety and depression, which have a negative impact on recovery.

Hope is Contagious

Although some of us may be fortunate to be hopeful by nature, it is important to realize that hope is a social resource. Hope emerges through interactions with the people who surround us and is then internalized. 

Hopelessness can also be contagious!

Therefore, it is important for a patient’s ‘support network’ – family members, doctors, specialists, nurses, social workers, pastoral care advisors, friends and others – to do and say things that help create and activate hope pathways for the patient.

Hope is contagious and it can be transmitted in small ways and in ordinary moments: an encouraging word, a kind gesture, a moment of sharing closeness and support, listening deeply, showing respect and empowering the patient to make their own decisions. The love and support of family and close friends is important for sustaining hope;

so too is the support and encouragement of health professionals.

Our hope at The Gawler Cancer Foundation is that health professionals become more aware of the importance of hope as a resource for recovery.

There are some hopeful signs! The following quotes are from an article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology:

“…approaching adversity with a positive attitude at least gives you a chance of success. Approaching it with a defeatist attitude predestines the outcome.”

“Life is inherently uncertain and unpredictable, with or without cancer. We (oncologists) cannot tell patients how long they will live, but we can do better than giving them a single number (prognosis). Improving the accuracy of our predictions is important, but conveying the limitations and uncertainty of these predictions is even more important, not in the least because it offers a means of quantifying and conveying realistic hope and understanding.”

Are we seeing a shift towards telling patients with a chronic illness that the ‘glass is half full’ instead of telling them that the ‘glass is half empty’? It is the same glass, but do we emphasize a sense of possibility or a lack of it? Of course, there has been a fear of offering patients ‘false hope’. But this fear has often stopped health professionals from offering any hope.

False hope does not recognize the risks and dangers that true hope does. False hope can lead to intemperate choices and flawed decision making. True hope takes into account the real threats that exist and seeks to navigate the best path around them.

Hope can be cultivated

Studies have shown that hopeful thinking can be increased. Hope is not just a quality that is inherited or bestowed upon us. Hope can be inspired by contact with others, but it can also be actively cultivated. 

Here are some tips for cultivating hope:

  • Consciously choose to live, to continue to engage with your life.
  • Know why you want to live and to make the effort.
  • Prioritise your most important needs, feelings, relationships and activities… and continue to go for it!
  • Set aside sufficient time to take care of your needs.
  • Accept limitations due to energy levels, pain, and disability (these limitations will change in time).
  • Make several paths to your goals… have a Plan B, C and D!
  • Anticipate setbacks and imagine how you might manage them.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Ask for help from others and allow yourself to be supported.
  • Attract and hold onto messengers of hope.
  • Spend time with other who are encouraging and inspiring.
  • Moderate exercise and sunlight can lift your spirits!
  • Get enough sleep, rest, relaxation and meditation time.
  • Find a confidante of a counselor or use a journal to express any doubts that may arise – don’t allow them to smolder.
  • Take time to learn any new skills you may need e.g. meditation, food preparation, communication.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy a good laugh with friends.

These tips have helped many people to enhance their helpful thoughts and feelings. Of course, it is not necessary to do all of the suggestions, but adding a few to one’s life will increase hopeful attitudes.

The Gawler Cancer Foundation has been a messenger of hope for over thirty years and continues to offer: Hope, Choice and Inner Peace for wellness and recovery from illness.

Our mission statement offers true hope:

The Gawler Cancer Foundation’s mission is to improve the recovery outcomes and quality of life for people affected by cancer and to educate people in the prevention of illness.

1. Candace B. Pert – Molecules of Emotion. Simon and Shuster 1999.

2. Quote from Prof Penny Schofield – from transcript of interview with Norman Swan. ABC Health Report Monday 26 July 2010.

3. Journal of Clinical Oncology Vol 28 No 16 June 2010. 2802-2804

Paul Bedson
Senior Therapist,
The Gawler Cancer Foundation & Yarra Valley Living Centre
BA, BCouns, BAcup

Paul has been working in the field of mind/body medicine for over 20 years as a counsellor, psychotherapist, meditation instructor and natural therapist. His particular interest is in helping people deal with the range of emotional issues associated with their healing journey. Paul also works with grief and anxiety issues and relationship problems. He teaches mindfulness-based styles of meditation which develop wisdom and compassion through awareness of body, emotion, mind and spirit as one integrated Self. Paul co-authored the book Meditation an In-Depth Guide with Ian Gawler.