The Science of Hope: Goals + Agency + Pathways

Whenever we’re feeling less-than-hopeful about something, there’s a quick check-in we can do to dramatically boost our hope levels.

It only takes a few minutes to take the Hope dial and crank it up to 11. 

You see, there are people who study this kind of thing—The Science of Hope.

And through their research, they distill the most essential bits we need to know into easy to understand frameworks.

In his book Making Hope Happen, Shane Lopez, Ph.D.–the leading researcher on the subject–outlines the simple formula we can apply to our lives when we’re feeling hopeless. (Or…just less hopeful than we wanna feel.)

The Science of Hope: Goals + Agency + Pathways

The Hope Formula has three parts: Goals + Agency + Pathways. (Which forms an easy to remember acronym: GAP.)

First, we have Goals. When we feel most hopeful, we’re in pursuit of a clear goal of the future that’s better than the present. The Goal is self-concordant. It’s an authentic desire—something we really want to create in our lives—not merely something we feel like we “should” have or are “supposed to” want in life. When we don’t have a goal that feels authentically inspiring, our hope drops through the floor. But when our goals light us up, we’re filled with energy to move towards them.

Second, there’s Agency. Which means we believe we have the ability to influence making that future vision a reality. We feel a sense of internal power. And we embrace how the actions we take can contribute to reaching our Goal. When we don’t feel much agency, we feel stuck, and fall into hopelessness. But when our agency is high, we know we have what it takes to reach our goals.

And third, we’ve got Pathways. Which is all about optionality—knowing that there are many different routes we can take to reach our goals. When it feels like there’s only one path we can take to reach a goal, it feels like we’re walking a tightrope. One wrong move and we’re toast. But when we know there are countless paths we can take to reach our destination, it’s easy as a Sunday drive. Doesn’t matter if there’s some road construction along the way, because there are plenty of other streets we can take to get there.

Pretty cool, huh?

Three variables: Goals + Agency + Pathways.

Now that we know them, let’s explore a little more about how we can understand our hope levels. And use that understanding to boost our hope to new heights.

The Hope Checkin

To check in on our current levels of hope, we can think about giving ourselves a “grade” for each variable on a scale from 1-10 (with 1 being the least and 10 being the most).

Goals: Give yourself a score from 1-10 on the quality of your goal. How well does it paint a picture of a future that’s even better than your present? How excited do you feel about your goal? Does it fill your body with a sense of aliveness when you think about it? Are you genuinely enthusiastic about it?

Agency: Give yourself a score from 1-10 on how much agency you feel in the process of moving towards that goal. Does it feel like something you’re capable of reaching? Do you have a sense of what’s in your control, and how you can move closer to your goal? Do you know you have what it takes to make that goal a reality?

Pathways: Give yourself a score from 1-10 on how many different pathways you see for yourself to reach your goal. Do you know that there are many ways to achieve success as it relates to your goal? Do you know some of the obstacles you’re likely to face along the path—and what you’ll do when you hit them? Do you feel a sense of creative power that even if your first few paths don’t pan out, you have what it takes to figure out others? 

So…let’s put this into practice real quick.

Pick an area of your life. Could be fitness, sleep, work, a particular relationship…anything goes!

Now check-in:

1 – How’re your Goals? (1-10)
2 – How’s your Agency? (1-10)
3 – How’re your Pathways? (1-10)

After giving yourself those scores, multiply them together. Goals * Agency * Pathways.

The most hopeful score = 1,000.
The least hopeful = 1.

If you’re anything less than 1,000 (which we almost always are!) then we have room to boost our hope even further. Let’s finish this off by taking a look at how to do that.

How to Boost Our Hope

We can take each variable one by one. 

Tools to Boost Our Goal-Power

1 – Dream Bigger! Oftentimes we don’t give ourselves permission to dream bigger. It can feel vulnerable to state our deepest, most authentic desires. We might feel guilty or ashamed for wanting the things we want in our lives. But here’s the deal: Authentic Dreams Should Feel Kinda Crazy. That’s a good sign. So let’s give ourselves permission to be a little unreasonable in what we go for in life. As one of my coaches once counseled me: “Be careful what you wish for…because you just might get it.” 

2 – Marie Forleo’s “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” exercise. Short story: instead of trying to get it perfect, take some of the pressure off of our dreamer by asking yourself “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”. Check out the article for more!

3 – Use your body as a compass. Our most authentic desires fill our bodies with a sense of energetic aliveness. As you scan for what you want, pay attention to what you feel in your body. Is it kinda dull and “blah”? Or does it feel electrifying, enlivening, and edgy? The closer we are to the latter, the more hopeful we’ll feel.

4 – Debbie Millman’s 10-Year Remarkable Life Plan exercise. Check out the article for more.

Tools to Cultivate Agency

1 – Get your energy dialed in. Are you eating well?  Exercising + moving daily? Getting great sleepBreathing well? Meditating daily? Energy management helps us see the world from a higher perspective, feel more capable of creating change, and more motivated to take action—even in the face of discomfort.

2 – Identify the controllables. Take stock of what’s in your control and what’s out of your control as you move towards your goal. Ruthlessly focus on what’s IN your control and let go of the rest.

3 – Cultivate stillness by reducing inputs. When we’re overwhelmed + inundated by non-stop news, social media, and other inputs, we get disconnected from ourselves and our personal power to create change in the world. Create more stillness in your life, and increased Agency will follow. 

Tools for Amplifying our Pathways

1 – Brainstorm A-Z pathways. Sometimes it takes a bit of imagination to identify the myriad paths we can take to reach our goals. Get creative by thinking through a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C…all the way down to Plan Z. If you have THAT many pathways to hit your target, your Hope will skyrocket.

2 – WOOP it out. The WOOP framework forces you to take stock of the obstacles you’ll face while pursuing your goal/wish. By laying them out clearly and acknowledging your 

3 – Tim Ferris’ Fear Setting exercise. When you’re clear on the ways your plans could blow up in your face and take stock of the actual consequences of those things—instead of just feeling kinda scared about them—you’ll see pathways beyond every roadblock.

Seeing A Better Future and Making it So

So that’s the lowdown on the Science of Hope!

Goals + Agency + Pathways.

I’ve internalized the science of hope thanks to the Optimize Coach program. It’s a 300-day program designed to help you Master Yourself, Serve Heroically, and Empower Others to Do the Same. 

The first piece, mastering yourself, is where most of the focus goes in the program.

In addition to the science of hope, Optimize Coach goes deep on:

  • The Science of Willpower + Motivation
  • The Science of Behavior Change
  • The Science of Grit
  • The Science of Eating, Moving, Sleeping, Breathing… 
  • And a whole bunch more.

And not just goes deep on, but gives you tons of real, tangible opportunities to PRACTICE putting this stuff into practice.

Because learning things is nice. But the only way to attain Mastery is through Practice. (+ more practice + more practice + more practice…)

Optimize Coach – Class III kicks off a week from today on Monday, August 24th.

If you’re excited about the idea of taking yourself (+ your career + health + energy + relationships…) to the next level, I humbly encourage you to join Optimize Coach. 

Check out all the details of the program here:

Big hugs + high-fives,

P.S. As a fun aside, I led the creation of our micro-site for the launch of Class III. Hope you dig it!

P.P.S. Bri recorded an EPIC (!!) overview of the Optimize Mastery Series (which is the foundation of the Coach program curriculum) which you can watch, for free, right here: My Life’s Work in 1 hour 11 minutes and 35 seconds (Seriously. This is it!! 🤓).


  1. If you haven’t heard me talk about Optimize before, you’ll wanna check out this article:
  2. At the time of writing this article, I work for Optimize.
  3. I don’t receive any commissions or bonuses for sharing Optimize Coach with you, or if you join. I do it because I know it’s one of the most impactful things I could possibly share with you through Mindful Ambition.

More from Mindful Ambition

  1. Optimize: My All-Time Favorite Resource for Personal Development
  2. Vision Setting: The Power of a 10-Year Life Plan (Debbie Millman’s “Remarkable Life” Exercise)
  3. Energy Management 101: How to Live With Increased Vitality