In my first blog post on mid-life malaise I spoke about the wonderful book by Johann Hari, Lost Connections, where he discusses the disconnection from a hopeful or meaningful future as one of the key societal drivers for anxiety and depression. In essence, when people have hope that their life may be better in the future, a bad day is usually only that – one single bad day. By that I mean, one bad day can be viewed objectively in isolation. But when there seems little or no hope that things can actually change, a single bad day quickly and completely confirms everything you already know about your whole life, which is…well, it just plain sucks all the damn-time.

It’s very easy then to imagine a situation where you’ve worked really hard towards a goal, maybe spent time studying or on a training programme to get you somewhere quite specific, only to end up with a low-paid job in a field that you never really liked, that you find boring, and despite all this disappointment, you’re still struggling to pay the rent and you can’t afford to go out and do anything you enjoy. In fact, this isn’t hard for me to imagine at all, this exact thing happened to me after university and into my 20s! A hopeful or meaningful future can seem a long way off, if it’s even imaginable at all.

And when hope seems to diminish, other funny, screwy things also seem to happen internally: we start to become less psychologically flexible. For example:

  • We start making inflexible demands of ourself: “I must get a high paid job“, which also sometimes also has an unspoken component which then continues silently… “because if I don’t people will look down on me for being poor and unsuccessful and it will be awful and I wont be able stand it” . Or what the great psychologist Albert Ellis referred to as ‘must-abation’;
  • We start trying to overgeneralise and predict the future in ways which are far beyond our actual scope of knowledge and influence: “I’ll never get out of this“, “I’ll never be appreciated for who I really am“;
  • We start seeing everything in only black and white: “I made a small mistake which means the whole thing/day/project is ruined and I might as well give up“.
  • We start seeing everything through a filter which confirms our own bias’: “This always happens to me“, “see, I knew my life sucks“.

These are some of what we call thinking errors or cognitive distortions. Its easy to see how these screwy thoughts and filters then act as feedback to reinforce the idea that there is no hope for the future, which in turn makes the thinking errors stronger or louder: what Donald Meichenbaum, on of the fathers of the cognitive behavioural approach, would call a vicious cycle. Some further reading on must-abation, can also be found at the Albert Ellis Institute webpage.

Each of these individual cognitive distortions or thinking errors can however be addressed in therapy and coaching. But before we do that, we usually focus on something far more fundamental: eliciting a sense of hope. Eliciting hope is a central role of the therapist in what we refer to as the therapeutic alliance – that is the relationship between therapist (or coach) and client that includes trust, respect, and pursuing mutually agreed goals. And there is consistently robust evidence (examples here and here) provided to show that the strength of this therapeutic alliance is one of, if not the key drivers of positive outcomes for the client.

The use of hopefulness in support of mood and depression in particular has good support in the field and we can trace its importance back to the earliest origins of therapy, including with Freud who believed that the benefits of psychoanalysis could be explained by patients’ “expectations, coloured by hope and faith” in the treatment process. Now, whilst Freud proposed a model and process we don’t actually ascribe to here or The Resilience Project UK, his and others’ observations on what might make therapy successful are still quite useful to us. A recent systematic review (i.e. a study of studies) examined possible interventions surrounding hopefulness and indicated that it may be best supported when there is support for identifying and pursuing personally valued goals and engaging in meaningful activity (see Berry et al, 2021). We have already discussed the importance of valued action in my last blog post.

How then, can we start building sense of optimism for the future? Well Donald Meichenbaum, one of the fathers of CBT, lays out in the book Roadmap to Resilience, several exercises that can be done in therapy sessions, but equally can be done quickly on your own, for example:

  1. Identify and write down times in the past in which you were performing at your best. What did you do (and not do)? How did others react? How did that make you feel? What did you think (and not think)? Be specific.
  2. List your personal strengths. What do other people see in you? Your friends and loved ones? How do you know? Write these down and give specific examples. No fluff—just the hard facts.
  3. Keep a list of things you are grateful for. Pick 3 things every day for 2 weeks.

Give them a go. You might be surprised how your perception of things can change pretty quickly. Even if only a little at first, a small boost can make a big difference. From here we can then make a concrete plan to address all the issues we need to address, and the steps we need to take to get you where you need to go. We’ll then maybe set SMART goals which are based on your values: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant to your values, and time-limited (that is when they will be done). “Some time” or “when I have time” will mean it never gets done! Another key factor related to this is accountability: the knowledge that you have to report back to your coach, therapist or a support group means that you will be much more invested in getting these done. We’ll return to the importance of accountability and gratitude training in future articles. The Roadmap to Resilience has kindly been published as a free resource by the Melissa Institute.

If you are interested in pursuing a more hopeful future, addressing thinking errors and developing personally-valued goals, then please get in touch for a no obligation phone consultation.