Hope in Counselling and Psychotherapy


Denis O'Hara

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    To Fiona for her love and understanding and for being a fantastic mum. To Evan and Keeley for their love and patience.

    About the Author

    Denis O'Hara is Associate Professor of Counselling and Psychotherapy at the Australian College of Applied Psychology and previously programme leader in the MSc in Counselling at the University of Abertay, Dundee, UK. Dr O'Hara is also an honorary fellow of the Australian Catholic University, Brisbane and a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. He has been a university lecturer for over twenty years and has maintained a private counselling and psychotherapy practice for most of his career. He has written extensively on hope and conducted research investigating the application of hope to a range of areas, such as bereavement by suicide, therapist hope, and hope in children and adolescents. Dr O'Hara is a keen psychotherapy educator, researcher, and supervisor, and enjoys providing professional development training. He believes that it is important to maintain a reflective stance towards one's work and to integrate theory and research into professional practice.


    People throughout the ages have sought help and wise counsel from a variety of sources for problems in living. While we can be sure that the questions and queries presented to those who listened varied greatly, one issue did not vary – the search for hope. This is because hope is an indispensable component of life. Without hope we cease healthy functioning. Hope is like the air we breathe and the food we eat, it is essential for life. These might seem like large claims for a concept or quality of which we are often only vaguely aware in our daily lives. While this may be so, many of the researchers referred to in this book have found that hope is commonly understood by people to be one of the most important human qualities to maintain. It seems that hope supports and guides much of our life focus and activity, but does so often without being noticed for the part it plays. Hope is everywhere yet hardly visible. It features in our everyday language in both mundane and profound phrases such as, ‘I hope dinner is on the table when I get home’ to ‘I hope my chemotherapy works this time’. It's commonly found as a movie theme: in The Shawshank Redemption the quietly profound nature of hope is well captured in the words written by prisoner Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) to his fellow prisoner Red (Morgan Freeman). ‘Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.’ This powerful quality we call hope seems to sit in some indeterminate zone between the unconscious and the conscious. It is ever-present yet elusive.

    In the modern era, the importance of hope has not diminished. With the emergence of the helping disciplines of psychology, psychotherapy, social work, nursing, and others, hope has gained increased notoriety as being an important aspect of human health and recovery. Building on the existing literature in theology and philosophy, nursing and psychology researchers have substantially added to our understanding of the place of hope in human functioning. While hope is often found in the background of daily life, it comes to the foreground at times of stress, illness, and struggle. Those working with patients and psychotherapy clients know that the discovery, development, and maintenance of hope are an important aspect of their work. The mercurial nature of hope however has meant that it has taken a surprisingly long time for it to become a key focus of enquiry in the helping professions. We have known that hope is important but have not clearly known how to foster and work with it.

    My desire to write a book on hope has grown slowly over about a fifteen-year period. The impetus for this has been threefold. In the first instance my interest arose from personal struggles. These struggles came from a mixture of physical ill health in my early adulthood and existential questioning about the meaning of life, partly as a result. My introduction to the profound necessity of hope came in my late twenties when I found myself incapacitated by chronic fatigue. My struggle with this became, in many ways, a defining life event. I was initially so debilitated by it that within the first three months of the illness I could rarely venture outside the house. I very slowly improved over eighteen months and was not fully functional again until three years later. The experience of severe chronic fatigue left me, as it has many others, wondering if normal life could again be possible. By its nature, chronic fatigue is an experience which raises questions about existence and therefore about hope and despair.

    The second stimulus for writing a book on hope came from my work as a psychologist and psychotherapist. It doesn't take long working as a therapist to realise that the need for hope is an essential feature of clients' concerns and inquiries. Whether directly stated or not clients bring to therapy not just pragmatic problems of living but existential ones. Their core issues tend to be about meaning-making, about making sense of life itself. My own observation as a therapist is that clients need hope to stay engaged in the process of healing and recovery, and people in general need hope for daily living.

    The third reason for putting pen to paper on the topic of hope is my interest in findings in the research literature. As an avid reader of all things psychological, it became clear to me that while hope was once not commonly found in psychology texts, it has, over the past thirty years, become a highly researched field of interest. While this is the case, there remains a relative dearth of literature on how to work with hope in therapy. It seems that it is time for a text which both explores hope in general and which also examines how to apply hope in therapeutic contexts.

    Structure of the Book

    As suggested above, hope is a mercurial topic and so to grasp its nature and function a comprehensive examination is required. Before one seeks to work with hope in therapy it is first advisable to have a thorough understanding of it. Thankfully, there is a rich variety of literature that provides an intricate tapestry of ideas about the topic. These ideas, though, need to be processed and organised in a way that supports the practitioner in his or her work. As well as being equipped to work with hope in the practice of therapy, helping professionals need to contribute ongoing research into how best to help people find, develop, and foster hope in their individual growth and recovery. With these concerns in mind, this book has three aims:

    • To introduce the reader to hope and to provide a solid theoretical grounding for the topic based on a breath of literature from several disciplines
    • To explore how to work with hope and operationalise it within therapeutic contexts
    • To encourage and provide ideas and resources for future research on hope.

    Reflecting these aims the book has been divided into three sections. The first section focuses on understanding the nature and function of hope. It draws on literature from theology, philosophy, and on research studies from nursing and psychology. In addition, an examination of how different theories of counselling and psychotherapy operationalise hope is provided. The final chapter in this section examines how despair and anxiety can be expressions of a loss of hope. The second section explores how hope can be worked with in therapy. The first chapter in this section examines therapist hope and what place it has in the therapeutic enterprise. The next chapter looks at practical strategies for fostering client hope. The final chapter in this section takes a deeper look at hope and its relevance for those who struggle with severe and enduring psychological problems. The last section of the book promotes the need for further research on hope and places an emphasis on practitioner research. The importance of conducting research that seeks to combine theory and practice is asserted. To encourage future research a range of research instruments are listed with some included in an appendix.

    The Use of ‘We’

    Please note that throughout this book when referring to the author(s), the personal pronoun ‘we’ is used. This is because I wish to acknowledge my wife, Fiona's, contribution to the development of the ideas communicated within these pages. Fiona has made a seminal contribution to the ideas herein and to the quality of the text, and so it only seems right to me that I refer to our combined efforts and desire to see hope better understood and worked with in therapy via the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’. As Fiona wouldn't let me include her name on the front cover, I have included it here.

    Finally, it is our hope that this book causes you to pause and to consider this most curious of qualities we call hope, especially how it applies to you personally and professionally.


    Both Fiona and I are enormously thankful for the support of a number of people at the University of Abertay, Dundee, UK. We first want to thank Emeritus Professor John McLeod for his encouragement throughout the project. Other staff at the university have also been a great support especially, Julia McLeod, Mhairi Thurston, Joe Armstrong, and Robin Ion. As well as support in the UK, we have benefited from moral and practical support from colleagues at the Australian Catholic University. I particularly would like to thank Professor Gail Crossley and Associate Professor Anne Tolan for their support and encouragement over the years.

    It would be difficult to write a book on this topic without the support of the publisher. We would particularly like to thank Commissioning Editor Alice Oven for first believing in the idea and Assistant Editor Kate Wharton for her help throughout the project. I would also like to thank Senior Managing Production Editor, Rachel Burrows, for managing the detailed editing of the manuscript. There are many others at SAGE involved in the cover design and production whose names we don't know but whom we would like to thank as well. We would also like to thank a number of unknown reviewers who provided very helpful feedback on the original proposal and on subsequent drafts of the book.

    As part of developing this text Fiona and I conducted a number of research studies on hope. These studies would not be possible without the willing participation of many people and so we want to express our appreciation for their time and effort in contributing further knowledge in this area by completing questionnaires and participating in interviews. We also want to thank our students for listening to reports on our research findings. We hope they were interesting.

    Finally, I (Denis) would like to thank my family, Fiona, Evan, and Keeley for allowing me the time away from them to write the following pages. I can't express my gratitude enough.

  • Appendix

    Settings Goals
    Set and Make Your Goal

    What is my goal? _____

    What is my pathway to the goal?

    How much do I believe I can make it? a little medium very much

    What makes me think I can attain my goal?

    What probably will happen if I maintain this path to my goal?

    What might happen if I change my pathway?

    What is my back-up plan?

    What would I tell a friend if he or she came up with my goal and my pathway?

    What are the first three steps towards my goal?

    • _____
    • _____
    • _____

    How much do I believe I will accomplish my goal now?

    • a little medium very much
    Source: Snyder (2000). Handbook of hope: theory, measures, and applications. New York: Academic Press.
    Goals Worksheet
    DomainImportance ratingSatisfaction rating
    Personal growth
    Social relationships

    My selected domain is: _____

    What would I have to do to increase my satisfaction in this domain?

    My goal is: _____

    To determine feasibility I asked three questions:

    The answers I obtained were:

    The main steps I will take to my goals are:

    Here are the steps arranged in order from first to last:

    Source: Snyder (2000). Handbook of hope: theory, measures, and applications. New York: Academic Press.
    Hope Questionnaires
    The Adult Hope Scale

    Directions: Read each item carefully. Using the scale shown below, please select the number that best describes YOU and put that number in the blank provided.

    • = Definitely false
    • = Mostly false
    • = Somewhat false
    • = Slightly false
    • = Slightly true
    • = Somewhat true
    • = Mostly true
    • = Definitely true
    • I can think of many ways to get out of a jam.
    • I energetically pursue my goals.
    • I feel tired most of the time.
    • There are lots of ways around any problem.
    • I am easily downed in an argument.
    • I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are important to me.
    • I worry about my health.
    • Even when others get discouraged, I know I can find a way to solve the problem.
    • My past experiences have prepared me well for my future.
    • I've been pretty successful in life.
    • I usually find myself worrying about something.
    • I meet the goals that I set for myself.
    Notes: When administering the scale, it is called The Future Scale. The Agency subscale score is derived by summing items # 2, 9, 10, and 12; the Pathway subscale score is derived by adding items # 1, 4, 6, and 8. The total Hope Scale score is derived by summing the four Agency and the four Pathway items.
    Source: Snyder et al. (1991). The will and the ways: development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(4), 585.
    The Domain-Specific Hope Scale

    Please take a moment to contemplate each of the following life areas before you answer the questions in each section. If a particular question does not apply to you at this time, try to answer it as you would if they did fit your situation (e.g., you don't have a job right now so think of your last job). Using the scale below, select the number that best describes your response to each question.

    Please take a moment to contemplate your social life. Think about your friendships and acquaintances and how you interact with others. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    Social Relationships (Friendships, Casual Acquaintances)
    • I can think of many ways to make friends.
    • I actively pursue friendships.
    • There are lots of ways to meet new people.
    • I can think of many ways to be included in the groups that are important to me.
    • I've been pretty successful where friendships are concerned.
    • Even when someone seems unapproachable, I know I can find a way to break the ice.
    • My past social experiences have prepared me to make friends in the future.
    • When I meet someone I want to be friends with, I usually succeed.
    Academics (School, Coursework)

    Please take a moment to contemplate your academic life. Think about your classes and your coursework. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    • I can think of lots of ways to make good grades.
    • I energetically pursue my school work.
    • There are lots of ways to meet the challenges of any class.
    • Even if the course is difficult, I know I can find a way to succeed.
    • I've been pretty successful in school.
    • I can think of lots of ways to do well in classes that are important to me.
    • My past academic experiences have prepared me well for future success.
    • I get the grades that I want in my classes.
    • If you read this question, place an X on the line.
    Romantic Relationships

    Please take a moment to contemplate your love life. Think about your romantic relationships. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    • I can think of many ways to get to know someone I am attracted to.
    • When I am interested in someone romantically, I actively pursue him or her.
    • There are lots of ways to convince someone to go out with me.
    • I can think of many ways to keep someone interested in me when they are important.
    • I've been pretty successful in my romantic relationships.
    • Even when someone doesn't seem interested, I know I can find a way to get their attention.
    • My past romantic relationships have prepared me well for future involvements.
    • I can usually get a date when I set my mind to it.
    Family Life

    Please take a moment to contemplate your family life. Think about your family members. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    • I can think of lots of things I enjoy doing with my family.
    • I energetically work on maintaining family relationships.
    • I can think of many ways to include my family in things that are important to me.
    • If you read this question, place an X on the line.
    • I have a pretty successful family life.
    • Even when we disagree, I know my family can find a way to solve our problems.
    • I have the kind of relationships that I want with family members.
    • There are lots of ways to communicate my feelings to family members.
    • My experiences with my family have prepared me for a family of my own.

    Please take a moment to contemplate your working life. Think about your job and job history. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    • I can think of many ways to find a job.
    • I am energetic at work.
    • There are lots of ways to succeed at work.
    • Even if it's a lousy job, I can usually find something good about it.
    • I have a good work record.
    • My previous work experiences have helped prepare me for future success.
    • I can always find a job if I set my mind to it.
    • I can think of lots of ways to impress my boss if the job is important to me.
    Leisure Activities

    Please take a moment to contemplate your leisure time. Think about the activities that you enjoy doing in your spare time. For some this may be sports or music or art. Once you have this in mind, answer the following questions using the scale above.

    • I can think of many satisfying things to do in my spare time.
    • I energetically pursue my leisure time activities.
    • If my planned leisure time activities fall through, I can find something else to do that I enjoy
    • I can think of lots of ways to make time for the activities that are important to me.
    • Even if others don't think my activities are important, I still enjoy doing them.
    • My experiences with hobbies and other leisure time activities are important to my future.
    • I have satisfying activities that I do in my leisure time.
    • When I try to perform well in leisure time activities, I usually succeed.
    Scoring Information

    Domain-specific hope scores are obtained by summing the eight items within each domain. Scores can range from 8 to 64, with higher scores indicating higher levels of hope within each domain. Total domain-specific hope can be tallied by adding the scores from each of the six domains. Scores can range from 48 to 384, with higher scores indicating higher levels of total hope across domains.

    Source: S. Sympson (1999). Validation of the domain specific hope scale: exploring hope in life domains. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation: University of Kansas.

    The Children's Hope Scale

    Directions: The six sentences below describe how children think about themselves and how they do things in general. Read each sentence carefully. For each sentence, please think about how you are in most situations. Place a check inside the circle that describes YOU the best. For example, place a check (✓) in the circle (O) above ‘None of the time’, if this describes you. Or, if you are this way ‘All of the time, check this circle. Please answer every question by putting a check in one of the circles. There are no right or wrong answers.

    • I think I am doing pretty well.

    • I can think of many ways to get the things in life that are most important to me.

    • I am doing just as well as other kids my age.

    • When I have a problem, I can come up with lots of ways to solve it.

    • I think the things I have done in the past will help me in the future.

    • Even when others want to quit, I know that I can find ways to solve the problem.

    Notes: When administered to children, this scale is not labelled ‘The Children's Hope Scale’, but is called ‘Questions About Your Goals’. The total Children's Hope Scale score is achieved by adding the responses to the six items, with ‘None of the time’ =1; ‘A little of the time’ = 2; ‘Some of the time’ = 3; ‘A lot of the time’ = 4; ‘Most of the time’ = 5; and, ‘All of the time’ = 6. The three odd-numbered items tap agency, and the three even-numbered items tap pathways.
    Source: Snyder et al. (1997). The development and validation of the Children's Hope Scale. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 22(3), 399–421.
    State Hope Scale

    Directions: Read each item carefully. Using the scale shown below, please select the number that best describes how you think about yourself right now and put that number in the blank before each sentence. Please take a few moments to focus on yourself and what is going on in your life at this moment. Once you have this ‘here and now’ set, go ahead and answer each item according to the following scale:

    • = Definitely false
    • = Mostly false
    • = Somewhat false
    • = Slightly false
    • = Slightly true
    • = Somewhat true
    • = Mostly true
    • = Definitely true
    • If I should find myself in a jam, I could think of many ways to get out of it.
    • At the present time, I am energetically pursuing my goals.
    • There are lots of ways around any problem that I am facing now.
    • Right now, I see myself as being pretty successful.
    • I can think of many ways to reach my current goals.
    • At this time, I am meeting the goals that I have set for myself.
    Notes: The Agency subscale score is derived by summing the three even-numbered items; the Pathways subscale score is derived by adding the three odd-numbered items. The total State Hope Scale score is derived by summing the three Agency and the three Pathways items. Scores can range from a low of 6 to a high of 48. When administering the State Hope Scale, it is labelled as the ‘Goals Scale For the Present’.
    Source: Snyder et al. (1996). Development and validation of the State Hope Scale. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(2): 321–335.
    Herth Hope Index

    Listed below are a number of statements. Read each statement and place an [X] in the box that describes how much you agree with that statement right now.

    The Satisfaction with Life Scale

    Directions: Below are five statements with which you may agree or disagree. Using the 1–7 scale below, indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number in the line preceding that item. Please be open and honest in your responding.

    • = Strongly disagree
    • = Disagree
    • = Slightly disagree
    • = Neither agree or disagree
    • = Slightly agree
    • = Agree
    • = Strongly agree
    • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
    • The conditions of my life are excellent.
    • I am satisfied with life.
    • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
    • If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
    Source: Diener et al. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71–75.
    The Helping Alliance Questionnaire (Patient Version)

    Instructions: These are ways that a person may feel or behave in relation to another person – their therapist. Consider carefully your relationship with your therapist, and then mark each statement according to how strongly you agree or disagree. Please mark every one.

    The Helping Alliance Questionnaire (Therapist Version)

    Instructions: These are ways that a person may feel or behave in relation to another person – their therapist. Consider carefully your relationship with your patient, and then mark each statement according to how strongly you agree or disagree. Please mark every one.


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