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Hopeful Thinking (Not Optimism) Step One to Help Turn Baltimore Around

05/11/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

It was a shocking image. A dozen or more black baby dolls, nooses around their necks, dangling from a West Baltimore tree. Was the racial tension that recently boiled over in the city, resulting in burning structures and looting and tear gas, being answered with a sickening reminder of Jim Crow-era white intimidation?

No. It was a statement by a Baltimore artist, an African American, about something deeper than an act of police brutality or perceived injustice. It was about despair.

Loring Cornish, who created the chilling display outside his studio, broke down in tears when talking about the wave of relief that washed over the city when the charges were read against the officers who have been implicated in the death of Freddie Gray, the man whose neck was reportedly broken while in police custody.

To be clear, the police department of Baltimore says its officers did not injure Gray. But regardless of how the case plays out, Cornish said people have finally begun to feel hopeful.

"We are slowly turning the wheel uphill," Cornish said. "We're at the very bottom, but it's turning uphill. That's the hope right there."

Government statistics show Baltimore has the highest rate of heroin addiction in the nation. The poverty rate is more than twice the national average and the jobless rate tops 20 percent. But, says Cornish, the emergence of this new, foreign feeling of hope, is palpable.

Why Does Hope Matter?

Hope is the key to turning helplessness into a sense of control, action and resilience. While anger is not wrong, misplaced anger is. Often, when injustice occurs in the world, anger is our most appropriate and empowering emotional response. But only when that anger is harnessed to effect change do we see a positive outcome.

Science is clearly in the corner of hopeful thinking. Strengths of character, such as hope, kindness and social intelligence, have been suggested to help buffer people against stress. Higher hope levels are equated with better grades in school, better athletic performances and may help protect us against disease. Hopeful people are less likely to be depressed. Hope also can predict longevity.

Of course, it's not enough to walk up to a group of impoverished young people and say to them, "just hope." You have to teach them action-based, healthy coping skills, such as how to approach life-enriching goals rather than simply avoiding life-depleting ones.

To that end, actress Sonja Sohn, who lived in Baltimore for nearly a decade while filming "The Wire," the acclaimed HBO series about cops and crime, is imploring Baltimore to "activate."

Sohn, who told CNN that being face to face with the urban blight was "overwhelming, saddening," is urging residents to channel their anger into advocating for themselves at both the state and local levels.

"Activating" is the very definition of hope.

Hope vs. Optimism

Hopeful thinkers take intentional action to achieve a desired outcome. Optimism, on the other hand, is more about just expecting good things to happen.

University of Kansas psychologist C.R. Snyder, who developed a psychological assessment to measure hope called the "Hope Scale," suggests that a person who thinks with willpower and "way power" has a "special advantage when things get tough." In other words, hopeful individuals know what they want out of life and have the motivation to make it happen.

Hope is among the emotions renowned positive psychologist Martin Seligman cites in his PERMA model of well-being. The "P" stands for positive emotions, including hope, love and gratitude. Seligman talks about changing hopelessness into hope by teaching people to recognize their most catastrophic thoughts and argue against them.

But is it indeed possible to teach hope? Snyder says we learn hopeful thinking by setting and pursuing goals. Children in earliest infancy learn hope from their parents, he explains, and to feel hopeful, children need boundaries, consistency and support.

Imparting Hopeful Thinking

Hope researchers encourage teachers to infuse hopeful thinking into their lesson plans. An intervention called Building Hope for the Future that includes hope-based sessions with middle school students, was shown to increase hope, life satisfaction, and self-worth for at least 18 months after the program ended. In his book "The Psychology of Hope," Snyder advises parents to teach babies causality -- that this action leads to that result -- and teach older children to think about failures as being due to ineffective strategies rather than lack of talent. His "don't" list for parents includes tiring of a child's questions and no longer answering them; encouraging a quiet, inactive demeanor in a child; and suggesting that a child isn't learning things as quickly as other children.

Clearly it will take more than action-oriented hopeful thinking and goal-setting to fix the problems in Baltimore. In fact, a global study of adolescents from low-income neighborhoods revealed that in some ways teenagers in Baltimore are faring worse than their counterparts in Nigeria. But the study did find that for young people growing up in poverty, social support was the number-one predictor of their overcoming hardship.

Great news coming just days after the rioting is that more support is on the way for the youth of Baltimore. The CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Chesapeake Terry Hickey announced that the agency had been inundated by people signing up to be mentors.

"Before last week we were getting on average maybe four inquiries a day," Hickey told WMAR. "[And now] it's been a hundred plus."

So even where the current of hopelessness seems to run deepest, people are pushing the wheel uphill and "activating" in Baltimore.

Jason Powers, M.D., is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and writes a blog on addiction.