Lack of a hopeful future as a root cause of depression

lack of hopeful future depression

When journalist and former depression-sufferer Johann Hari traveled around the world to speak to experts on the root causes of depression, one of his findings was the lack of a hopeful future. And I couldn’t agree more. 

And if you are currently suffering from depression, then a lack of hope is likely something you’ve felt yourself. Often in an overwhelming and very painful way.

In this post I’m going to dive into the topic of hope: 

  • What does hope have to do with our health and happiness?
  • Chicken or egg: Lack of a hopeful future and depression
  • How to gain hope even when it’s really hard

The effects of hope on our health and happiness

Hope allows us to endure incredible suffering and motivates us to take action. A complete lack of hope, on the other hand, makes action-taking seem pointless and you’re at much greater risk of suicidal thoughts. It makes sense. Hope is everything. The research agrees and offers further insights:

A recent study involving over 12,000 older adults (1) found that a greater sense of hope was associated with:

  • reduced risk of death
  • fewer numbers of chronic health conditions
  • lower risk of cancer
  • reduced risk of chronic pain
  • fewer sleep problems
  • increased life satisfaction
  • better quality of life
  • stronger sense of purpose in life
  • stronger social support
  • reduced anxiety
  • reduced depression
  • reduced post-traumatic stress disorder
In short, hope has enormous effects on your physical and mental health. 

Chicken or egg: Lack of a hopeful future and depression

Viewing our future negatively is a classic symptom of depression. And so it’s often assumed that it’s depression that causes the hopelessness. But positive psychology researchers Martin Seligman and Ann Marie Roepke argue that it could be the other way around (2)

They suggest that negative prospection (the mental representations of possible futures) is one of the core causal elements of depression. In other words, it’s the lack of a hopeful future that may cause depression. 

Seligman and Roepke break it down into three main processes that drive depression:

  1. Poor generation of possible futures (you can’t imagine many positive scenarios but excessive negative ones)
  2. Poor evaluation of possible futures (black-and-white expectations that negative outcomes will occur and positive ones will not and you have little perceived power to change that)
  3. Negative beliefs about the future (negative fixed thinking about the future and that everything negative is your own fault & permanent and that therefore things won’t change)
It’s important to note that this is not about having negative views at times. That’s normal and often a healthy response to challenges in our lives. It’s more about faulty, poor and dysfunctional prospection that really messes with you how you’re feeing and behaving. 
 
A lack of a hopeful future can lead to depressed mood, irritability, low energy, lack of motivation, apathy and in the worst case suicidality.

A vicious circle: hopelessness and depression

It’s easy to see how lack of hope for a good future makes you depressed. And depression, in turn, then feeds the hopelessness and the faulty thoughts about your future possibilities. 

How so? Well, typically with depression you start to withdraw socially, limit your activities, avoid all kinds of situations and therefore have fewer positive experiences. You’re more likely to behave in ways that are stressful and that lead to conflicts with others. And the sad mood makes you dwell on negative past events. 

All of these experiences provide the raw materials that you then base your future scenarios on. 
 
An incredibly helpful tool here is CBT therapy- a talking therapy that helps you to manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave. But as well as challenging your current thoughts and feelings, we can also look at other tools such as Snyder’s Hope Theory:
 

How to gain hope even when it's really hard

So of course the question is: How can you nurture your sense of hope? If your belief is that you’ll always be depressed, that you’ll end up all alone or that you’ll never be successful – well, how can we shift from this hopelessness to hopefulness? Let’s use the highly popular hope theory by psychologist Snyder (3):

Snyder's Hope Theory

Snyder focused a lot of his work on the theory of hope and found that the most hopeful people have these 3 things in place:

First, you need to have goals. If your thoughts about the future are attached to specific goals that are meaningful to you, then you tend to have more hope. What would be meaningful for you to achieve in the future?

Then you need to think of your pathways to get you there. Can you imagine and plan how you will achieve your goals step-by-step? What is your strategy?

And you also need a sense of agency. You need to feel that you are capable of achieving your goals and that you have a sense of control and power. Can you follow the path you set for yourself?

Here is a great video (3:44min) that illustrates this process well:

“The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

Barack Obama

Doing this work alone can be hard

There are various tools and strategies aside from borrowing CBT techniques that I often use in my work with my clients. They fall under the umbrella of positive psychology.

Fundamentally, it’s about reconnecting with your values, your personal strengths and the things that provide you with a sense of hope for the future: What has always felt important to you? What qualities do you value in others? What qualities do you value in yourself? What are you naturally good at? What have others complimented you on? What would you do with your life if you only had one year left? … And many more questions that help to cut through the dark cloud of depression and uncover (or rather rediscover) what it is that gives you a sense of meaning, purpose and hope for a better future. 

If you are interested in reading a fantastic book on cultivating hope, then take a look at “Making Hope Happen” by Shane Lopez.

And if you are interested to see whether my holistic approach to overcoming depression is right for you (which very much includes nurturing a hopeful future) then simply schedule a free call with me

 

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.”

Pablo Neruda

References

1 Long, Katelyn & Kim, Eric & Chen, Ying & Wilson, Matthew & Jr, Everett & VanderWeele, Tyler. (2020). The role of Hope in subsequent health and well-being for older adults: An outcome-wide longitudinal approach. 100018. 10.1016/j.gloepi.2020.100018. 

2 Roepke AM, Seligman ME. Depression and prospection. Br J Clin Psychol. 2016 Mar;55(1):23-48. doi: 10.1111/bjc.12087. Epub 2015 Jun 12. PMID: 26096347.

3 Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249–275. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1448867

lack of hopeful future depression

Hello, I'm Claudia

I’m Claudia Smith, a qualified nutritional therapist, functional medicine practitioner and coach specialising in depression. This is where I share my thoughts and advice on natural and holistic approaches to overcoming depression.

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