Re-kindling hope: kicking for the surface

When asked why we should bother learning about wellbeing, I often use the analogy of people as swimmers, wearing either buoyancy vests or diver’s weight belts. The buoyant, high wellbeing people, tend to stay on the surface and bounce back when something pulls them under for a while. Those with the weight belts have to make an effort to stay at the surface. They can sink under the weight of additional challenges. People with the weight belts benefit from a pair of big flippers or fins(wellbeing skills and techniques) that can help them kick back up and then stay the surface.

The challenge is that we can’t tell from the outside who is wearing the weight belt or the buoyancy vest. So it makes sense to equip everyone with the flippers – i.e. knowledge of wellbeing strategies they can use in their own lives. In addition, life doesn’t discriminate and sends challenges our way regardless of who we are. A very buoyant person can be handed a heavy weight and find themselves struggling with this new challenge. At some point in our lives we are all likely to face challenges, needing wellbeing and resilience strategies.

Hope is defined as agency (will power) and pathways thinking (way power). We believe we can do something and we can see ways by which we might get there. That is the essence of hope. However, what about the moments when we feel hope-less? How do we re-ignite the spark and rekindle hope when we lack it. Sometimes it feels like the pilot light has been turned off so it’s hard to get the whole fire going again.

Emily Dickinson said ‘hope is a thing with feathers’. But on a bad day when I’m under the surface, it might take a penguin to reach me. Strategies for those days need to be brief and easy. For some people, it’s helps to start with acknowledgement and compassion, then maybe challenging our own thoughts, and then to move on to finding gratitude and even a little hope. Try these and see what works best for you.


  1. Acknowledge it.
    We all have bad moments. Notice it and name it. A journalist friend of mine once told me “on a good day I can phone the Pope for a quote. On a bad day I can’t even phone my mother”. Dial back on your expectations for this moment and know it will pass.
  2. Practice some self-compassion.
    Kristin Neff’s self-compassion break ( begins with a comforting touch – hug yourself, hold your heart area or cup your face in your hands (remember we’re mammals and respond to soothing touch). At the heart of self-compassion is remembering that we all have moments of suffering; it’s a part of life and you are not alone. Sometimes just this acknowledgement can ease the pain. The next step asks us to give ourselves the compassion we need in this moment. That’s important – compassion is more helpful than self-flagellation or a recital of our deficiencies.
  3. Notice and label your thoughts.
    On days when negative thoughts and feeling abound, notice and label them. The act of labelling gives you some distance from your thoughts. Labels that downplay how big something feels or make you smile are helpful too. For example, when feel ‘raging bull furious’, I label it ‘a bit peeved’. Or when I’m a 9 on the catastrophe scale, I label it ‘a twinge of upset’. The ridiculous gap between my feeling and the label can make me grin. And then I’ve moved a little bit further from the thought.
  4. Give and receive a hug.
    We are mammals. Human touch is comforting to us at a very basic level. Find someone you can hug – preferably someone who will respond genuinely and for a few seconds – not a ‘catch and release’ or an air kiss.The good news is, if a hug donor isn’t immediately available, you can hug yourself. A mindfulness practitioner I know says ‘the body doesn’t know who’s giving the hug, it just knows it’s getting one’.  He suggests you lie with your back on the floor, wrap your arms around so that your hands are on your upper back and move gently left and right. Bonus – it releases tension in the upper back.
  1. Ask yourself ‘What are you grateful for?’
    On a tough day it might be two legs, two arms… and moving out from there. It might be that I’m not in a war zone or fleeing danger right now. It can be as simple as a hot cup of tea, sun in the sky, a dog to pat, or a smile.
  2. Ask yourself ‘What are you hoping for today?’,
    even when you’re not feeling hopeful. The hope might be very, very, small – delivered by a penguin with fishy, oily feathers. But listen and pay attention. The act of asking and waiting is important. We’re creating the space for hope to arise, however small. It might be ‘I hope I get dressed’ rather than ‘I hope I run a half marathon’.

We all have bad moments. It’s important to be kind to ourselves when we’re feeling underwater.  And the goal is just to move to a slightly better, kinder next moment. Try these techniques for size and see if they can help you or people you know re-kindle hope and resurface to air and sunshine.

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