This is an email from Inside Your Head 🧠, a newsletter by Elemental.
This Is Your Brain on Hope
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
Over the weekend, America got a new president, one who has committed himself to science. True to his word, President-elect Joe Biden named his coronavirus advisory board, a diverse group of doctors and scientists with expertise in infectious diseases, public health, epidemiology, and vaccines.
Speaking of vaccines, yesterday Pfizer announced astounding preliminary results from its Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial. The report comes from a press release, so take it with a hefty grain of salt, but the drug company says that its vaccine is more than 90% effective at preventing Covid-19. A lot more information is needed (How many people who got the vaccine still became asymptomatically infected? What do we know about potential long-term side effects? How long does the protection last?), but it’s hard not to feel optimistic at the news.
I know, I know, this is a newsletter about the brain, not about the coronavirus (you can sign up for that one here), but having been immersed in Covid-19 coverage for the last nine months — not to mention living through the year 2020 — the news from the past few days has given me a funny feeling, one I haven’t had for a while: hope.
In the brain, people experience optimism about the future in two key areas: the amygdala, our emotion processing center, and part of a region called the anterior cingulate cortex that is involved in thinking about the self, reflecting on the past, and anticipating the future, particularly with an emotional lens.
The opposite of hope is often thought to be depression, and interestingly, both of the brain areas activated during feelings of optimism are malfunctioning in people with depression.
But hope is more than just having a sunny outlook for the future. According to the psychologist Charles Snyder, who pioneered much of the research on the topic, real hope requires three components: goals, agency, and pathways. It’s not enough to want something to happen, you must have a way to achieve it.
Feelings of agency — “having both important goals and believing that one can initiate and sustain action toward goal attainment” — appear to be especially important for people’s mental health. In a study of college students, those who ranked themselves as having more hope had lower levels of anxiety and depression months later, but only if they also scored high in agency.
Hope may benefit your physical health, too. Among older adults, higher levels of hope are associated with lower mortality rates compared with people who feel hopeless. Researchers speculate that having hope may prompt people to make better, healthier choices.
Hope is critical to defeating the coronavirus, because people who feel hopeful “see desired outcomes as attainable [and] continue to exert efforts at attaining those outcomes, even when doing so is difficult.”
On the flip side, “When outcomes seem sufficiently unattainable (whether through personal inadequacies or through externally imposed impediments), people reduce their efforts and eventually disengage themselves from pursuit of the goals.”
In other words, if you’re going to commit to wearing a mask and not seeing family through the winter, you have to have hope that your efforts will pay off in the end. With a science-backed administration and a vaccine on the horizon, I think we finally have the national agency to achieve that.