Imagine a world where hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism are just one pill away. A breakthrough that would change the way we face challenges both big and small. This miracle drug wouldn’t numb us to discomfort, but instead help us feel positive despite any pain we may be experiencing. And what if I told you this wonder pill had no side effects? It’s completely free and can be taken as often as needed without becoming addictive or interfering with other medications.
Now imagine there was only one catch: it could only work if you asked yourself four simple questions—each for the traits of hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism. Would you still want to take it?
Most of us would. Asking the questions is easy, and with a pill that powerful most would be willing to do our part to make it work.
But we don’t have to wait. Science is at the point where we don’t have to imagine this. In fact, we don’t even need the pill. We’ve come to the point where asking the four questions alone is enough to cause the positivity effect—a tendency to recall and favor more positive than negative experiences.
Psychological capital—consisting of hope, empowerment, resilience, and optimism (or H.E.R.O.)—is a powerful force that drives well-being. While financial, social, and human capital have been widely recognized for their importance in various fields, psychological capital has recently gained the attention of researchers due to its significant impact on individuals’ mental health. The evidence speaks volumes—these four traits collectively contribute toward building one’s overall positive outlook toward life. Here’s how they work:
Hope comes from a belief that a positive future outcome is possible, combined with a desire for that outcome. It is also unique among the positive emotions in that hope requires negativity or uncertainty to be activated. None of the other positive emotions, like joy or gratitude, need something to be wrong to be put into place. Hope is specific to what you believe you can do to impact the future—what you believe you can change. This leads to the first question.
1. What can I control?
This directs our attention toward thinking about what we can control rather than what we can’t. As hope comes from what we perceive we can control, this question launches a focus on what can be done—not the overwhelming list of things we can’t.
Empowerment is the natural outcome of self-efficacy, a term used to understand a person’s perceived ability to bring about desired outcomes. The sense we can get something accomplished gives us the confidence to succeed. Without empowerment we lack the follow-through needed to prevail. The second question focuses on this sense of agency.
2. What is it I have the power to do?
A realistic assessment of one’s ability and confidence add the needed determination for a successful outcome. Without feeling a sense of power, even the best of ideas won’t cross the finish line.
Resilience seems to evolve from flexibility. Resilient people have a flexible mindset, and succeed rather than succumb because they keep an agile perspective of moving through a difficult situation. To get through an obstacle they don’t get stuck on what isn’t working, but rather make assessments about what is possible. They continue to experiment with new options until one works. Resilience, it seems, is more likely when one is more adaptable. The natural question is:
3. How can I be more flexible?
Being able to cultivate alternatives and options in a situation, testing out these options, and evaluating their effectiveness is the key to resilient thinking. Pondering the alternative with this question allows you to become more like a stream that comes upon a rock—you move around the obstacle with ease and continue to flow.
Optimism is a general expectancy that good things will happen in the future. As you might imagine, optimism and pessimism are opposite styles. Interestingly, scientists classify whether you are an optimist or pessimist based on how you explain positive and negative events in your life. Your explanatory style can determine a rosy or dismal outlook. In general, optimists maximize when good things happen, and minimize the bad. Pessimists, no surprise, do just the opposite. When bad things happen, pessimists exaggerate them, and anything good is incidental. To think like an optimist, you’ll want to begin asking a provocative question.
4. When is the next good thing going to happen to me?
These four questions—What can I control?; What do I have the power to do?; How can I be more flexible?; and When is the next good thing going to happen to me?—help orient our mind to create an expectancy, an anticipation that stimulates a deep readiness for good things to come. It is when we believe we can achieve that real change can happen.
And about that pill? It is called a placebo, and some of the latest research suggests that the power of our expectations is getting stronger worldwide. More and more drug companies are finding it harder to beat the placebo effect. It seems the secret may already be out—about to unlock the inner hero.
Dan Tomasulo, PhD, is author of the popular self-help guide, Learned Hopefulness, hailed as “the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness” by Deepak Chopra. He is core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI) at Teachers College, Columbia University; and was honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression. He holds a PhD in psychology, an MFA in writing, and a master of applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. A highly sought-after international speaker on topics relating to applied positive psychology, he authors the popular blog, The Healing Crowd, for Psychology Today. His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit, was released in 2018.