12/10/2016 12:07 BST | Updated 11/10/2017 06:12 BST

Having Hope When All Seems Hopeless

I recently received a message from a psychologist in a large Australian prison. She has been printing my blogs and handing them out to prisoners as "a beacon of hope for change". This got me thinking about the role of hope and optimism in my own life and personal transformation.

Hope is such a strong word for anyone who has experienced despair. When we think of hope we think of the optimistic expectation that things can be good or get better in our lives. Yet how do we maintain and cultivate optimism when all hope seems lost? How do we find hope when all might seem hopeless?

I lost all hope when I was given a prison sentence of to ten-to-life as an 18-year-old. At 18 I didn't have enough life experience to be able to conceptualise a length of time like ten years, it seemed like forever. Yet the first ingredient of hope and optimism is to realise that your troubles won't last forever. Approaching 40 I now know what ten years looks like, I have perspective. The insight that all troubles pass is not a new concept. In a fable written by the 12th century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur, a powerful king asked the three wisest of men to create a ring that will make him happy when he is sad. After deliberation the sages hand him a simple ring with the words "This too shall pass" etched on it. Knowing that this too shall pass is the first requirement for having hope when most in need. Yet this fable captures more than just the idea that external circumstances that are causing you stress will pass. It captures the idea that the emotional impact of our circumstances will also pass, even if those circumstances remain the same.

The once broken heart will mend despite the permanent absence of that lover. The overwhelming loss experienced when a limb is removed or a long-term medical diagnosis is made will pass too. As will the pain and sadness that accompany bankruptcy, divorce, or bereavement. In fact, the research suggests that unless our situation is progressively debilitating, we return to our prior emotional baseline for happiness and wellbeing within 6-24 months of such traumas. It took me a while to see that my life wasn't over just because I was imprisoned, and to see that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but doing so was the crucial first step in having hope that things could change.

You're even more likely to feel optimistic and hopeful if you also realise that the cause of your misery doesn't permeate all aspects of your life. It is easy for us to obsess about the areas in our lives we are most troubled by, but there are always rays of sunshine too, if we look for them. I remember the gratitude I would feel for being able to experience the wonder of nature through seeing weeds growing in the cracks in the concrete of the yard at maximum security, for living in a country where I wasn't summarily executed, and for having people in my life who cared about me. What's going well in your life might not be the same or as desirable as someone else's, but if we want to be optimistic about our future we must each choose to focus on what we can still be grateful for about our lives when most troubled and in need of hope.

Holding on to hope and cultivating optimism also comes from recognising that the causes of our adversity are not unique to us or even about us as individuals. One of my favourite psychologist's said that the whole point of adult personality development is to outgrow our adolescent narcissism, to realise that we are not the centre of the universe, no matter how much it feels like it! When bad situations arise hope comes from realising that we aren't being punished for who we are as individuals, but that we are experiencing a set of circumstances that have played out before and will play out again for others when we are gone. Cancer, prison, redundancy, or heartbreak weren't invented for you alone. These things aren't about us as individuals, but are things that people in general experience in life and are driven by influences that would impact others if we weren't available for the role. Make no mistake, this is not intended to leave you feeling nihilistic and powerless. It is instead intended to communicate the opposite, to remind you that the universe is impersonal, but that you are empowered to choose your perspective, and in doing so to change your reality.

Three take away messages:

  • Hope is about an optimistic expectation that things can get better, and such optimism can be cultivated and learned.
  • Learned optimism occurs when we realise our situation and/or its impact on us aren't permanent, there are other areas of our life that aren't impacted and that we can be grateful for, and that our adversity is not personalised to us, but a reflection of how the world works more generally.
  • Don't hope for an easy life, but the insight and perspective to retain hope regardless of what life throws at you.