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Mar 14, 2024 | by Katelyn Long, Edward Brooks, Laura Kubzansky and Tyler VanderWeele

Hope and optimism: distinctions and deepening conceptions

Wellbeing economics has traditionally looked at happiness and life satisfaction as determinants of life quality and welfare, not yet including hope and optimism

Recognising this conceptual gap, the Office for National Statistics has now included ‘hope for the future’, as a measure in the revised UK Measures of National Wellbeing framework. This enables us to track trends and establish a fuller picture of our national accounts, offering a new lens to approach issues such as health inequalities, ‘deaths of despair’ and poverty.

Similar academic interest and exploration is occurring in the United States, where an interdisciplinary working group of social scientists, epidemiologist, philosophers, and theologians has recently focused on understanding and assessing hope and optimism, and exploring the role these play in health and wellbeing. The team has leadership from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Human Flourishing Program, and Oxford Character Project.

Here, members Katelyn Long, Edward Brooks, Laura Kubzansky and Tyler VanderWeele share insights from their work.

While health research has long taken a deficit-oriented approach, the tide is turning to look at assets and strengths that can promote positive outcomes in people’s lives. 

Hope and optimism are things we can define, measure, analyse, and ultimately cultivate. 

To deepen and expand our understanding requires careful study of these ideas, their distinctions, their impact, and their limits.

What we did

We began with a focus on conceptual distinctions between hope and optimism, which led to expansive review of the kinds of measures used to assess these concepts in empirical research. 

Our review became a springboard for refining existing conceptual definitions and developing new measures of each concept that better reflect the updated definitions. 

We are now in the process of testing the quality of these measures in a series of studies and have successfully piloted a survey with a large cohort of several hundred US college students and a group of around 120 employees from a large US engineering firm.

Key findings from mapping the landscape

  • There remains a high degree of conflation between the terms “hope” and “optimism” in empirical and lay literature. 
  • Relatively few large scale longitudinal studies include measures of hope or optimism, limiting the ability to assess how these experiences operate in people’s lives. 
  • While there is evidence that high levels of hope lead to lower mortality risk and higher wellbeing, metrics are limited and there remains a need for a hope assessment that is conceptually rich and empirically valid. 
  • While more work has looked at optimism in relation to physical health, metrics for this concept are also somewhat limited and richer assessment will provide greater insight.

Distinctions between hope and optimism 

Philosophical and theological discussions, and psychological research, suggest hope fixes a person’s attention on the possibility of  good in the future, especially in the face of difficulty. Hope focuses us on the future and empowers us to act, or to wait, to receive that good regardless of potential challenges or in the midst of uncertainty. 

In contrast, optimism is an expectation that the future will be good. The concept rose to prominence in the twentieth century through the work of philosopher J.P Day and others who were curious about how features of optimism may relate to those of hope. For example, is optimism an extreme form of hope, or something altogether different?

Building on prior work, we developed the following conceptual definitions of hope and optimism:

Hope – a disposition or tendency to fix one’s attention on the possibility of the desired good in the future, characteristically in the face of difficulty. 

Optimism – a disposition or tendency to have expectations that the future will be good, occurring in four forms

  1. groundless optimism – due to irrational beliefs;
  2. resourced optimism – due to a person’s resources or circumstances;
  3. agentive optimism – from a person’s plan to exert effort towards a good future;
  4. perspectival optimism – from fixing positive attention on objects or situations. 

Current measures


The most commonly used measure of hope, the 12-item Adult Hope Scale, was developed by Charles Snyder in 1991 and conceives of hope as two interrelated cognitive dimensions: 

  1. having agency 
  2. a sense of ways by which positive outcomes will occur (planning or ‘pathways’)

While Snyder and colleagues have developed extensive empirical work based on this conception, some have expressed concern that this measure fails to capture how hope most often arises when desired outcomes are extremely difficult to attain and when one is at the limits of agency. 

Since it is precisely this kind of deep difficulty that is pervasive and that makes the need for hope so acute, it is important that the conceptual foundations of hope research include these possibilities. 


Psychologists advanced the empirical study of optimism through the use of dispositional measures such as: 

Both are widely adopted and influential in psychological research. However, recent scholars point to findings suggesting there are nuances these measures fail to capture. 

If we can understand these better, we may be in a better position to think about how to leverage optimism in the promotion of health and wellbeing.

Deepening conceptions: developing new measures

For hope, we adopted or modified several items from existing scales and developed others to capture ideas not previously addressed. Our final set of 12 includes items which are both agentive (when attaining a future good requires one’s own effort) and receptive (when attaining a future good is outside of one’s control). 

  1. Despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future (Petersen and Seligman, 2004) 
  2. I look forward to the future with hope (Beck et al., 1974, modified)
  3. Even when circumstances are hard, I turn my attention to the good things that might happen in the future  
  4. When facing difficulties, I focus on the possibility of a good outcome  
  5. I look for ways to make the future better, even in the face of difficulty 
  6. Even when things are hard, I generally believe I can work through the difficulties 
  7. When things are outside of my control, I still believe in the possibility of a good future 
  8. Even if things don’t work out well for me, I still believe that good will triumph 
  9. I consistently maintain hope even when the things I desire are very far in the future 
  10. No matter how hard things get, I still have hope 
  11. Even when I want something that is very unlikely, I still have hope 
  12. I consistently hope for the very best future 

We purposefully included  items that align with our conceptual definition that hope can be a tendency or disposition oriented to goods in the distant future, that it can exist even in extreme difficulty or uncertainty, and that it can fix one’s attention on the possibility of very great goods, even in the midst of present struggles. 

For optimism, we similarly adopted, modified and developed eight items which distinguish between the four types of optimism identified in our definition. 

Groundless optimism

  1. Even though I have no reasons for it, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad (LOT-R, modified) 
  2. I expect positive outcomes even when I don’t have good reasons for my expectations 

Resourced Optimism: 

  1. Because of my personal resources, I have reasons to expect more good things to happen to me than bad. (LOT-R, modified) 
  2. Because of my life circumstances, I often expect the best. (Kuppens et al., 2007, modified)  

Agentive Optimism: 

  1. Overall, I expect more good things to happen to me than bad because I give my best effort to all that I do (LOT-R, modified) 
  2. I usually expect the best because my efforts really matter 

 Perspectival Optimism: 

  1. I always look on the bright side of things (Chang et al., 1997) 
  2. When there is a mix of good and bad in a situation, I tend to focus on the good 

Next steps

We are currently testing these items in two large studies of US college students and young adults, and among employees of a multinational engineering firm. 

In the coming year we will conduct substantial psychometric analysis on both measures to assess the extent to which they capture the multidimensional refined definitions of hope and optimism and how they compare to existing and widely used measures. 

The long-term goal of our work is to deepen collective understanding of both hope and optimism, so that they can be more carefully included in efforts to promote human health and wellbeing around the world, now and in the future.


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