‘Active hope’ may help sustain us through the uncertainty

In the context of lockdown, tiny actions that can seem harmless, like meeting up with friends or travelling out of our LGAs, can have harmful consequences.

But, just as the problems can happen through people, so can constructive responses, says Johnstone, who provides free online courses in active hope:

“A useful question is ‘if the story of things working out well, or even not getting much worse, was to happen through me, what part might I play?’”

The power of collective hope, in action, is evident by the record numbers of people getting the jab in NSW.

“You individually following the rules and getting vaccinated is not going to change the entire situation globally,” says Dr Nicholas Van Dam, the inaugural Director for the Contemplative Studies Centre at the University of Melbourne. “But if you take those actions as a community you know that you’re contributing to restrictions loosening eventually, potentially getting things under control and ultimately contributing towards a greater positive good.”

Dr Jodie Lowinger, the founder of the Sydney Anxiety Clinic, adds that active hope directs our focus to the potential for a positive outcome. “It provides a powerful antidote to our inherent negativity bias that we have as humans,” she says. “It can reduce our threat perception and help us to realign to practical action. It’s different from blind positivity.”

In fact, optimism and hope were never meant to be Pollyannaish, says Dr Tim Sharp, chief happiness officer at the Happiness Institute.

“We know hope is fundamentally important… but the key thing is, it’s got to be grounded in reality,” Sharp says. “It’s vital people hold on to hope.”

So, how do we do that exactly?

Not by turning into cynical contortionists or deluded optimists but by blending hope with pragmatism, realism and flexibility.

“A lot of us are used to thinking three or six or 12 months ahead with something like holidays,” says Sharp. “I would encourage people not to give up on their longer-term dreams because we will get there… but, maybe don’t put specific dates on it.”

Or, if that seems too depressing, at least ensure any plans are flexible. And acknowledge that it’s OK to feel a bit depressed about it all too, he says.

“I would encourage people not to give up on their longer-term dreams because we will get there… but, maybe don’t put specific dates on it.”

Dr Tim Sharp, chief happiness officer at the Happiness Institute

“We’ve all felt hopeless and a bit gloomy and anxious and depressed and that’s a normal reaction. It can become overwhelming, so we do want to try and create some hope, and how do we do that? It’s breaking it down into small steps and just thinking about today.”

Balancing hope with an acceptance of what is allows us to process challenging circumstances and focus on what will help us right now, Lowinger adds. That might be exercise, getting to know your LGA in minutiae, slow cooking or a moment spent in the sun.

Van Dam says acceptance also means not delaying our happiness until certain outcomes are achieved, like lockdown being lifted.


“Don’t miss out on the fact that despite how complicated things are there are things that happen in our day that we can take a moment and go ‘that was really lovely’,” he says. “I’m not going to say it’s going to outweigh the bad because things are really hard for a lot of people but by trying to pay attention to the small blessings in our lives it does make things a little bit easier.”

And of course, we can activate our hope through our actions.

“I live in a country with one of the highest COVID death rates in the world,” says Johnstone, who hasn’t seen his 88-year-old mum for nearly two years. “I know it is hard for many in Australia right now, but I admire the decisive responses with lockdowns happening sooner rather than later. We waited here, in the UK, far too long when the curve was rising – and we paid a price for it.

“That phrase ‘when the curve is rising’ applies to climate change as well as the pandemic. Some curves act as warnings. The goal of ‘flattening the curve’ makes as much sense to carbon emissions as it does to COVID cases.”

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