A card to remember found its way into our letterbox this Christmas, with a beautiful red robin adorning the front. The robin symbolises hope, renewal and new beginnings – a sign of good things to come.

What a great symbol for 2021, after the year we have left behind. A year that brought anguish to so many, with pretty much no one left unscathed by the impact of COVID-19. As you read this, it’s still not over, of course – far from it. But there is hope on the horizon in the shape of a vaccine.

Hope for the future brings power to the present moment. Of course, hope isn’t some delusional, self destructive denial of reality.

Hope doesn’t pretend everything is perfect. Hope doesn’t make excuses. Hope is accepting and acknowledges the reality of the current situation – and works to find the best way forward. Hope always believes that things can get better because you can do something about it. Hope is resilient. Hope is realistic optimism. As a result, you feel more content, confident and willing to believe “it is possible”.

It turns out that having a strong sense of hope is good for your mental and physical health, as well; helping you to survive and thrive in the world.

Hope and mental health

Research shows being hopeful can better enable you to embrace stress and address anxiety and adversity. Hope builds better coping skills for handling stressful situations and reduces the harmful effects of stress on the body.

It shifts your thinking from what’s wrong to what’s strong; moving you away from the fight-or-flight stress response towards a recharge from stress. Hope can help protect you from accurately seeing the pain and challenges the future may hold, which can be a good thing at times. Overall, hope builds resilience; enabling you to deal more effectively with setbacks through grit and persistence.

Hope and emotional health

Hope boosts your emotional bank account with positivity and brings on other positive emotions – like confidence and curiosity. It enables you to be more creative in your approach to problem solving; broadening your perspective. Hope builds friendships and stronger, more supportive relationships.

Hope and physical health

Hope is good for your physical health and sense of wellbeing. People who are hopeful tend to be physically healthier and report feeling better than equally healthy people who are pessimistic. In addition, they have a stronger immune system, less pain, cope better with illness, and show stronger recoveries after surgery.

Hopeful people are more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices (exercise, diet, sleep, etc), which explains (in part) the benefits of hope on physical wellbeing. Hope encourages goal setting and motivates positive action towards those goals. It boosts your subjective sense of wellbeing, overall contentment and happiness.

A hopeful heart; a healthier heart

Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that optimism can lower your risk of heart disease by 35%. Furthermore, Harvard research found that the most pessimistic men had twice the incidence of heart disease as most optimistic men. There appears to be a strong association between optimism and longevity. The Nurses’ Health Study has been tracking the health and health related behaviours of a large group of American Nurses since 1976 and has found a strong and statistically significant association between raised levels of optimism and reduced mortality.

In addition, research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the most optimistic women were up to 30% less likely to die from serious illness during the study’s eight-year time period.

In Japan, the concept of ikigai (pronounced eek-y-guy) means “a reason to get up in the morning and enjoy life”.

Rooted in the conviction that one’s life is worth living, it implies finding meaning in life is as important as optimism. Research from Japan shows that lack of ikigai is associated with increased risk of death due to heart disease. In Okinawa (a Japanese island with famously healthy residents), ikigai is thought to be one of the reasons why people there have such long lives.

Hope for 2021

In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie wrote that, when two men looked out from prison bars, one looked down and saw the mud; the other looked up and saw stars.

Hope and realistic optimism is a choice, not just wishful thinking. Each day you can choose to learn to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty, learn to turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones of opportunity. Commit to turn your “Can I or can’t I/Will I or won’t I?” into “When will I? And how?”

This tendency to see the world as you are, rather than as it is, means your ability to develop your sense of realistic optimism can be learned and cultivated.

One way to bring more hope into your life for 2021

Keep a journal

Reframing challenging situations in a more positive way allows you to dissipate negative stress and help tip the scales of positivity back in your direction. Rather than take negative thoughts at face value, you can learn to dispute them and come up with alternative, more positive solutions.

Cognitive restructuring is a technique to challenge negative thinking patterns and replace them with more optimistic thought patterns.

Change the focus from what you have lost to how you can grow. How can you use your experience to develop new perspectives, increase appreciation of life, use your strengths, connect with your purpose or deepen your sense of spirituality. These are all hallmarks of post-traumatic growth.

Write about your best possible future self. This exercise involves writing a paragraph about how life is going to be in five years time - when all your dreams come true and the goals you are working on come to pass. How will you feel when you achieve these goals?

Simply spending a few minutes imagining the best possible future for yourself will boost your sense of hope and optimism.

Build your gratitude practice. Become more mindful. Watch your associations and media diet. Stay informed, but minimise negative noise in conventional and social media platforms. Connect with your purpose. Accept what you can and can’t control.

The opportunity for 2021 is, through your efforts to cultivate more of a sense of hope, you can improve and change things for the better.

For me, my hope for you as we begin 2021 is for a year of improved health. Hope for a healthier future. Hope for a successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Hope for a return towards normal and for post-pandemic growth. New insights, fresh perspectives and hope for a society that leaves no one behind.