Discover what hopelessness means, its causes, and how to get help if you are experiencing it.
Have you ever felt profoundly dissatisfied with your life but couldn’t imagine how it could improve? Maybe these feelings and thoughts led to apathy–lots of snack-fueled Netflix binges, long naps, and little progress on goals that you value. Maybe you were even diagnosed with clinical depression and told that your hopelessness was a symptom of a psychological disorder.
If so, you’re not alone. Anyone can experience hopelessness. Hopelessness can prevent us from engaging with the most meaningful parts of our lives. These mental states can reinforce themselves, leaving us trapped in a vicious cycle: If you can’t imagine how your life could change for the better, you’re less likely to try to change it and it’s more likely to stay the same. You might then take this sameness as further evidence that there’s no hope. It is possible to break out of this cycle, however, and we hope that this article leaves you with an understanding of hopelessness that helps you to loosen its hold over your life (or gives you tools to defend against it in the future).
Hopelessness is negative expectations combined with the judgment that problems can’t be solved–in other words, people in the grip of hopelessness believe that their future will be miserable and that there’s nothing they can do to change it (Beck et al., 1975).
The hopelessness theory of depression states that people are more likely to become depressed if they blame unpleasant events on internal, stable, and global causes (see Liu et al., 2015 for a review). For example, imagine another driver aggressively honks at you at a stoplight. If you think that the driver is honking at you because you’re a terrible driver, always will be, and are generally bad at every skill you attempt, you’re more likely to end up depressed.
In contrast, if you think that the other driver is honking at you because they’re having a bad day, you’ll probably never run into them again, and most other drivers are polite, you’re less likely to feel depressed. With the latter kind of explanation, you preserve your self-concept and see the annoying interaction as an isolated event instead of a pattern. Many people who experience emotional abuse as children tend to reach for internal, stable, and global explanations for painful events in their lives–this pattern can cause hopelessness when people endure more hard times later in life (Liu et al., 2015, Fig. 1).
Hopelessness is a hallmark symptom of clinical depression. Depressed people tend to predict unrealistically negative futures for themselves (Beck et al., 1974). It’s unclear whether the sad and apathetic moods of depression lead to hopelessness, a hopeless mindset leads to depression, or the cause-and-effect relationship goes both ways.
Because hopelessness is so difficult to overcome and is often a symptom of clinical depression, your best bet for overcoming hopelessness may be to reach out to a qualified mental health professional. A crisis text line or suicide hotline may also help (although if your hopelessness persists, consider finding regular therapy as well–hotline workers may be able to connect you to resources for long-term therapy). Options include texting HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line or dialing 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).
Below, discover additional strategies you could use to break out of the cycle of hopelessness.
Don’t buy into it. You can treat pessimistic or hopeless thoughts like annoying acquaintances. Instead of engaging with, internally debating, and analyzing every negative thought, try to just brush them off.
Write a new story. Narrative therapists believe that we can empower ourselves and live more satisfying lives by challenging and rewriting the stories we tell ourselves (White & Epston, 1990). Externalizing problems is a critical part of this process–in separating our identities from the problem, it’s easier to see past it to what we want for ourselves. In the case of hopelessness, you can try asking what the hopelessness “wants” you to do–e.g., “The hopelessness wants me to give up and never apply for that dream job. It doesn’t want me to have a career I find interesting and more financial stability.” This framing might inspire you to take steps toward your goal in spite of the hopelessness. This strategy might work particularly well if you tend to react to criticism by trying to prove the naysayer wrong.
The tendency to explain current painful events in internal, stable, and global terms promotes hopelessness and may lead to depression. If you feel hopeless, mental health professionals may be able to help you; engaging in the relationships and activities you find most rewarding and meaningful might also rekindle hope. No matter how hopeless our circumstances may appear, there’s almost always something (even if small) we can do to improve them. With the many problems and stressors that most of us regularly face, it’s easy and understandable to become hopeless. And it’s difficult but crucial that we keep moving, keep testing our hopeless thoughts, and don’t give up.
Beck, A. T., Weissman, A., Lester, D., & Trexler, L. (1974). The measurement of pessimism: the hopelessness scale. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 42(6), 861.
Beck, A. T., Kovacs, M., & Weissman, A. (1975). Hopelessness and suicidal behavior: An overview. Jama, 234(11), 1146-1149.
Liu, R. T., Kleiman, E. M., Nestor, B. A., & Cheek, S. M. (2015). The hopelessness theory of depression: A quarter-century in review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 22(4), 345.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. WW Norton & Company.