The feeling when you believe that a desired event has a possibility of happening. You keep thinking about how good it would be if the event actually happened.

You feel hope when you think about something in the future that you really want to happen, but which is still uncertain. The thing you want to happen is partly or completely out of your control. For example, when you organize an outdoor event in your neighborhood and hope that the weather is good; when your daughter is waiting for the results of her exam, and you hope she passed; or when a national election is held and you hope your preferred candidate wins. You can also hope for something good to happen to complete strangers (for example, wishing for peace in a far-away, war-torn country, while negotiations are undergoing), which gives the emotion an altruistic dimension.

To experience hope, you need to wish for something to happen in the future. You need to believe that there is a (slim) possibility for this to happen; however, if it is probable to happen, excitement is more likely. Hope is typically brought about when you have little, sometimes no control over the outcome of the situation (e.g. the weather, election outcomes). There must be a certain (external or internal) factor influencing the event, over which you have little or no power (‘I really hope I can focus today so I can finish my work and not have to work in the evening’).

We distinguish between two types of hope, ‘active’ and ‘passive’. Passive hope is about waiting for external agencies to bring about what we desire, whereas active hope is about becoming active participants in bringing about what we hope for1. Active hope is associated with events that you perceive to be controllable to some degree, and it motivates you to do things to make these events more likely to happen. However, there is always a sense that not everything is under your control, and thus active hope rarely results in reckless behavior. Passive hope, on the other hand, induces passivity – even when it is unreasonable to be passive (people may wallow in hope, not recognizing that they actually have some agency in the given situation). Nevertheless, passive hope can be functional in uncontrollable situations: it fosters patience and optimism that better/more opportune times are coming, one simply has to wait2.

Hope can focus on personal matters (getting a degree, finding love), on matters that affect people close to you (your sister finding a house, your son finishing college), or on broader matters (your country getting a new leader, your sports team becoming the champion). The object of hope can be concrete and pointed at a specific moment (‘I hope my candidate wins the election’, ‘I hope the weather will be good on my birthday tomorrow’), but it can also be somewhat abstract, distant, and without a clearly defined time (‘hoping for better times’, ‘sometime in the future’).

The intensity of hope can increase with increasing personal relevance of the event that is hoped for. People scoring higher on optimism generally tend to experience this emotion more easily. Ironically, the less likely an event is to happen, the higher levels of hope you can experience. If an event is (very) likely, you will probably feel excitement instead. On the other hand, when the likelihood is too small, one might lose all hope (e.g., “I would really love to go abroad for Christmas and I see a possibility for that to happen, but given the current situation, I do not have any hopes that it will”), and in extreme cases, desperation can ensue. There can be a vagueness or abstractness in hope that is not present in excitement: you are excited about a specific thing, but you can be hopeful for ‘better times.’ If the event is largely under your control, you experience determination rather than hope.

Although you can experience short moments of high-intensity hope (e.g., when cheering for your team at a soccer game), hope is typically milder and lasts longer than most other emotions (i.e., 1-6 months3). In that sense, it can be considered somewhat of a ‘background emotion’. People often use daydreaming and fantasizing to keep hope alive; however, it is necessary to also see some possibility for the desired event to happen (e.g., daydreaming about dating a celebrity does not evoke hope because you believe that there is no chance of that ever happening).

Hope can function as a coping strategy: it allows you to focus on something positive even in times when everything seems negative, and it motivates you to ‘see the bright side’ of the situation. This helps you identify opportunities –however small– which may otherwise go unnoticed2. It can also give you a boost in confidence, courage, and ambition. Hence, hope functions as a requisite to survive and thrive: hopeful people are quicker to recover from illness3, and when someone ‘loses all hope’, they no longer want to live. This emotion is, however, relatively resilient (‘hope dies last’).

Hope is sometimes viewed as the opposite of fear; nevertheless, this typology considers it to be the opposite of anxiety, particularly due to their shared vagueness. Fear/anxiety is, actually, often experienced together or in alternation with hope: they are the two sides of the coin, each focusing on one of the different possible outcomes of a future situation. People can stay on one side or repeatedly switch between the two (‘yesterday I saw no way out of this mess, but today I feel more optimistic’).

Historically (before the 20th century), philosophers and ‘pre-psychologists’ ascribed a central role to hope (Aquinas and Hume classified it as one of the basic emotions). Presently, hope is still considered an important emotion in human functioning, but it does not seem to have the central role anymore. It is often used in times of political change or revolution (hope for a better society, a better world), and it is the key emotion in many religions (hope that God will make things all right, hope for a good afterlife). Søren Kierkegaard called hope ‘the passion for the possible’.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“One day it will be better.”

Sources and further reading