Embodying Hope: The Impact of Hopeful Thinking on Cardiovascular, Psychological, and Linguistic Indicators

Faculty Mentor(s)

Dr. Lindsey Root Luna and Dr. Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet

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Past research has identified a relationship between self-regulatory processes and parasympathetic nervous system function (Geisler, Vennewald, Kubiak, & Weber, 2010). Self-regulation relates to hope in that each can involve motivation, finding pathways toward a goal, and practicing self-control (Vohs & Schmeichel, 2002). Hope has received attention for its mental health benefits, but its connections with psychophysiology have not been explored experimentally. In this study, we examined the impact of hopeful thinking on cardiovascular, psychological, and linguistic indicators. Sixty undergraduate students participated in an incomplete repeated measures experiment with three imagery conditions. Participants first thought about a specific, personal hoped-for outcome (e.g., academic, professional, relational) and then imagined their hoped-for outcome being fulfilled, remaining unfulfilled, and a neutral control condition. Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) were analyzed. Following each trial, participants completed self-report measures of hope, flourishing, and subjective emotion. Hope-fulfilled imagery was positively related to positive emotions (joy, gratitude, peace) and inversely related to negative emotions (sadness, anger), ps < .001. Participants also reported greater levels of flourishing in the hope-fulfilled condition. Linguistic analyses indicated that participants used more hopeful, social, positive emotion, and benefit-finding language in the hope-fulfilled condition (ps < .004). The main effect of imagery condition was not statistically significant for the physiological measures. However, an interaction of trait hope and imagery condition revealed that for participants with high trait hope, HF-HRV was negatively impacted by the hope-unfulfilled condition (p = .018). Results demonstrated that hopeful thinking prompted increased state hope, flourishing, positive mood, and positive language whereas hopeless thinking induced opposite effects. Furthermore, hopeless thinking appeared to come with a cardiac cost (i.e., decreased HF-HRV) for people with high trait hope. Provided that goals are appropriate, imagining hopes fulfilled yields emotional benefits and buffers cardiac response for high hope people.


This research was supported through funding from the Frost Research Center at Hope College and by an award to Hope College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate Science Education Program.

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