As someone whose training and passion is in population health - which concerns itself with the various factors that make a population healthy or not healthy - I'm increasingly struck by the role a simple four-letter word plays into the equation: hope.
We know that much about a person's health is related to personal intention. We also know much of personal intention is buoyed by hope. It is the continuously ignored hero in population health improvement and is often a factor in successfully maneuvering challenges, conflict, failures and crises.
We see it in the medical community every hour of every day. We also see it in business settings, in classrooms, and in the routine moments of everyday life. When hope is an underpinning of a person's attitude and approach, he or she can not only conjure up the juice to propel through uncertainty and fear, but also embrace a positivity that enriches every effort and endeavor.
The impact of hope - which is the ability to see the possible good in future events - has long been recognized as a potent factor for living a rich, full life, even in the face of daunting circumstances. So irrefutable is the evidence of its importance that the psychological community came to recognize in the early 1990s a formal theory called the "Hope Theory." Research has shown that people with hope experience greater academic and career achievements. Those who have no hope avoid bigger challenges, quit earlier, and often live much of their lives in a stew of discouragement. Research has also show that during illness, belief and expectation - both of which are associated with hope - have an impact on the nervous system in ways that make improvement and recovery more likely.
We have all seen how much more often positive things occur around people who are resilient - those who are hopeful that better things are coming - than around people who are not. We've also seen how people who are more hopeful have a greater sense of well-being and move-forward energy, just as researchers have shown that hopeless, gloomy people who generally expect the worst often get exactly that.
And yet, despite all that, there's still in most quarters an almost avid determination to dismiss or ignore the importance of hope. And the very act of minimizing its value can have the effect over time of pulverizing it.
To be fair, it is an ephemeral thing, this thing called hope. "Hope is that thing with feathers," Emily Dickenson famously wrote. It's hard to measure, you can't always control it, you can't put it into a pill and it can't be commoditized.
But, I would counter, you can certainly see when it's missing . in a person's life, in an organization, or in a society or culture.
Hope can be bolstered and nurtured. When it is, you have people who are content, who flourish and thrive. Hope can also be thwarted, and the opposite occurs.
There is the occasional cry by experts to give more consideration to hope and hopefulness in public health practice models, dating as far back as 20 years ago when one researcher, for example, pointed out that many studies show that hopefulness is related to better health and well-being and lower distress in diverse communities, and is also likely to prompt positive coping strategies.
But such suggestions are rare. Apart from within the faith communities, few herald the importance of hope.
That must change.
Leaders in organizations, too, must be cognizant of never thwarting hope, as when it is thwarted, the people who work there are likely to be less healthy and less likely to feel content and confident enough to pursue the "possible" versus the predictable.
Healthcare organizations should work to become better at embracing the importance of hope as a catalyst for health - not groundless, useless hope, and not artificial prognoses, but a recognition that it can be important to speak the words that set free the power of the patient to control and influence his or her destiny. An engaged, hopeful patient is on a good, resolute path. He or she might be dealing with a never-anticipated disease or injury, but when fortified with the correct clinical tools and allowed - even encouraged - to unleash as much hope as can be mustered, that person is in the driver's seat. A hopeful patient's neurochemistry results in the release of endorphins, which have a pain-blocking effect and buffer from stress, anxiety, and the effects of unanticipated life events.
Our job as compassionate human beings is to embrace the importance of hope and to nurture it at every opportunity. for ourselves and every person we encounter. It benefits our bodies, our souls and our hearts.
Margaret Sabin, is the former CEO of Penrose-St. Francis health services, a national leader in population health management, and resides in Colorado Springs.