Think of two teenagers you have regular contact with: one who is resilient and happy, and one who is struggling and languishing. Imagine you are interviewing each of them, and you ask them to respond to each of these six questionnaire items:

1. I think I am doing pretty well

2. I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are important to me

3. I am doing just as well as other kids my age

4. When I have a problem I can come up with lots of ways to solve it

5. I think the things I have done in the past will help me in the future

6. Even when others want to quit, I can find ways to solve the problem

Chances are that the teen who is resilient will respond affirmatively to these items. The teen who is struggling is more likely to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’.

These items are from the Children’s Hope Scale, and assess the hopefulness of children and teens. In terms of resilience and wellbeing, hope is a critically important predictor of how our youth are going.

Understanding Hope According to Hope Theory, hope is belief a person has that they can find ways to achieve their goals and to motivate themself to use those pathways. Hope theory suggests we need three things to actually have ‘hope’:

1. Goals – something we are aiming to achieve in the future

2. Pathways – at least one way (and hopefully more than one) that we might achieve those goals

3. Agency (or sometimes called efficacy) – the belief that we can actually make things happen along those pathways in order to get the goal

Hope vs Optimism

Hope differs from optimism in important ways. Optimism is the belief that good things will happen in the future, and the sense that the glass is half full. Hope is about taking that optimism, making it goal-oriented, and putting legs on it to make things happen.

And while optimism is great for boosting wellbeing and can act as a useful tool for inoculating people against depression, it seems hope does it better. This may be because while optimism is a positive mindset, hope is about action.

Why Hope?

Having high hope seems to correspond with higher levels of personal wellbeing, life satisfaction, and even academic and athletic achievement and success. Relationships appear to be better for those who are hopeful individuals, perhaps because they try to make things happen if things are not working out well. Those with low hope (or who are hopeless) are less likely to act, and therefore less likely to move towards a goal or a change in circumstance.

Like several positive psychology interventions, the idea of using hope as a useful strategy is not a silver bullet. Some data indicates that increasing hope through interventions may not reduce psychological distress. Other studies show only modest improvements in psychological wellbeing. Therefore, it may be useful to ensure those with significant psychological distress or mental illness receive traditional psycho-therapeutic interventions.

How to Help Hope

For those who are not psychologically distressed but would like to be more hopeful and positive about the future, these three ideas may be helpful:

* Speak to youth about their possible futures, and have them imagine their potential best selves, and help them create visions of various pathways to take them to their best possible future self

* Ask them what they’re looking forward to

* When they’re stuck, rather than giving them an answer, ask them, “What do you think is the next best thing to do?” or “When have you overcome something like this before?”

Like gratitude, using strengths, being optimistic, building relationships, or doing any of the multitude of things positive psychology suggests; being hopeful is not guaranteed to fix everyone and everything. But for some youth, it can be the key to helping them develop a vision, create a pathway, and work like crazy (with you as an adult to guide them and keep them accountable) to move forward towards a better, more fulfilling, happier future.

Dr Justin Coulson is a parenting researcher, speaker, and author, and father of six daughters. Find him at