Hope is not just some ephemeral emotion. Nor is it the abstract one-size-fits-all concept put to work in poetry and political campaigns. It’s actually a deeply felt neurochemical stance that our minds take toward our current circumstances—a stance that alters our outlooks and our actions, as well as the life paths that unfold before us.

Clinical psychologist Rick Snyder of the University of Kansas has developed what he calls the "hope theory." This theory assumes that human behavior is primarily driven by the pursuit of goals and suggests that hope comes out of a synthesis of two components that are vital for meeting our goals successfully. In scientific literature these components—actually two types of thinking—are called "pathways" and "agency" thinking.

Pathways thinking is the organizational aspect of hope. It grows out of our perceived ability to identify the necessary paths for achieving a desired goal (i.e., how to get from point A to point B). "Agency" thinking drives us along these pathways, and grows out of our perceptions of our ability to use them to achieve our goals (i.e. what compels us to act).

Hope theory is significant because it recognizes the individual as the primary source of the energy and planning that moves us from dreams to desired outcomes. What’s more, it provides an explanation for the fact that in numerous studies, whether or not a person has hope has been shown to play a significant role in whether they produce favorable outcomes from the situations in which they find themselves.

This research dovetails with other findings that higher levels of hope not only lead to achievement of goals, but an increased sense of well-being. According to clinical psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hopefulness is not just a reflection of optimal functioning—it actually produces it, both broadening a person’s mindset so that novel and creative responses are more likely and building resiliency to prepare for the future.

Hope arises precisely within those moments when fear, hopelessness or despair seem most likely. Perhaps you’ve just lost a job or a relationship, and your future prospects seem grim and your initial reaction is to shut down. But it is in those dark moments that it is most important to turn to hope. Because without hope, we’re much less likely to find a way out.

But what if you’re having trouble finding hope? For most people having hope is like breathing, it just comes naturally and they don’t even have to think about being hopeful. For others, though, it may take some practice. However, like any skill it will get easier and yield better results with time.

So if you’re having trouble believing you can find a way out, here is a way to help you develop your "hope muscles." Before you start, though, keep in mind that "hope theory" suggests that the quality of a goal—its likelihood of being met—depends on whether one can be reasonably happy and hopeful about the outcome.

Goals that are too easily achieved (like watching television all day) do not lead to developing suitable pathways or require high levels of agency for achieving them and are not likely to lead to happiness. The same is true for those who set unreasonable goals. Snyder believes that goals should be challenging, yet achievable in order to lead to high levels of hope and an ultimate sense of satisfaction and happiness.

With that in mind, here are four steps to help you practice your hope skills:

1. Set a goal and imagine new opportunities that will allow you to meet it. This is called possibility thinking and is a key to making progress.
2. Work slowly but steadily toward your goal. (Even if the "new opportunity" mentioned above hasn’t shown up yet!)
3. Talk with people who seem hopeful about their future, a counselor or a coach. Sometimes you need another perspective to see smart new opportunities and these people are just the ones who will help you find them.
4. Treat yourself well. Hope flourishes—and everything looks better—when you are taking care of yourself.

The moment you choose to hope it literally opens you up. It removes the blinders of fear and despair and allows you to see the big picture. You become more creative, unleashing and achieving your dreams for the future.

It is inevitable that every one of us will face serious challenges—to our health, to our prosperity, to our sense of wellbeing—in our lifetimes. Whether we’re looking at the world stage or our lives, it’s essential that we choose hope over fear. The more we exercise hope today, the better equipped we’ll be to survive and thrive in our darkest moments. And you know what? It just feels better.

Author's Bio: 

Stacey Curnow works as a certified nurse-midwife in North Carolina, and over more than 15 years her career has taken her from western Indian reservations to a center-city Bronx hospital to the mountains of southwestern Mexico.

She has been an enthusiastic student of positive psychology for years and applies it to her midwifery and life coaching practices with great success. You can find out more about her services at www.midwifeforyourlife.com.

She is the creator of a thriving Blog: "http://www.staceycurnow.com/blog" and many of her articles have been published in print magazines and online.

She lives in Asheville, NC with her husband, young son, and Ruby the wonder chicken.