How you can use learned HOPEFULNESS for your writing

Reading time: About 3 minutes

If your writing ever makes you feel helpless, it’s time for you to use learned hopefulness to inspire and support your writing…

If the COVID epidemic has taught us anything, it’s schooled us in the concept of what psychologists call “learned helplessness.”  

Basically, this theory holds that when faced with a difficult situation that feels uncontrollable, people tend to act helpless and depressed. I’ve seen it with COVID on both sides of the equation — people scared to leave their houses and people scared to get vaccinated — and, outside of COVID,  I’ve also seen it with the writers I work with.

Some writers feel they will never finish their book or their dissertation. Some even have a hard time starting a blog. The project seems too big or too overwhelming and the odds seem too stacked against them.   

But whether your sense of hopelessness relates to the pandemic or to your writing, there are some clear steps you can take. A 2020 book by Dan Tomasulo, Learned Hopefulness, outlines the actions you can take to make your life — or your writing life — better. Not with blind optimism but with a carefully calibrated plan that allows you to take a pile of lemons and turn them into a big batch of lemonade.

Here are nine steps:

    1. Express your feelings. This should be a particularly easy task for writers who are accustomed to putting their thoughts into words. I highly recommend that all non-fiction writers use a research diary as a place to capture their thoughts, feelings and opinions. And even fiction writers might want to do the same thing (although they probably won’t want to call it a “research” diary).
    2. Favour optimism. Is your glass half empty or half full? According to psychologist Barbara Frederickson, positivity can appear in at least 10 different forms: joy, awe, amusement, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, love, pride or inspiration. Look for these opportunities every day and don’t discount them as insignificant. Relish them.
    3. Express gratitude. Sure, we all sometimes make mistakes. And it’s easy to wallow in the murky swamp of things-gone-wrong. But be sure to make some time to recognize the things that go right. If you require yourself to identify just three of these good news items — no matter how small — every day, your brain will turn this action into a habit. 
    4. Look for the possibilities in your life (and writing), not the limitations. It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong or what makes our lives difficult. Instead of bemoaning what’s gone wrong, ask yourself: What can I learn here? How can this lesson better set me up for the future? How can this strengthen me?
    5. Care for yourself. I’m not talking about bubble-baths and pedicures here. I’m thinking way more basically. Do you know the acronym HALT? It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If any of these words describe you, take immediate steps. Eat something for hunger. Get some exercise for anger, or bash a pillow. Talk to a friend to hold off loneliness. Take a nap or go to bed early if you’re tired. Taking care of yourself will allow you to spend more time (later) doing the stuff that’s really important to you. Like writing.
    6. Recognize your own strengths. We’re all good at some tasks — and correspondingly bad at others. Our society teaches us to focus on what we’re really bad at and then encourages us to work to improve those skills. Instead, I’m encouraging you to identify and focus on what you’re really good at — and do more of it. Give yourself credit for your own strengths related to writing, whatever they may be. Use them as your starting point.
    7. Break down big goals into much smaller steps. Many people overwhelm themselves with huge jobs that become paralyzing. Writing a book requires at least 70,000 words. Many dissertations demand 90,000 or more. If you tackle the job with the crushing end-goal at the top of your mind, you’re going to have a really hard time. Instead, focus on the 300 words you need to write that day. (Write just 300 words a day for a year and you will have 78,000 words.)
    8. Have a goal with a greater purpose. Did you know that people whose happiness stems from having a sense of purpose in life have lower levels of cellular inflammation? Don’t write your book to become a New York Times bestselling author and make lots of dough.  Don’t write your dissertation with the expectation of getting tenure. Figure out a way in which your writing can contribute to society’s greater good. (And, yes, a novel can also achieve that goal.)
    9. Write for someone else (and make time for other people, too). Humans are social animals. We need our family and friends. Viewing the world through a self-obsessed lens leads to depression and anxiety. In fact, a study by University of Buffalo psychologist Michal Poulin has found that, for most people, stress is linked to mortality. But this link can be broken by helping other people. Focussing our attention on others and their problems helps us to feel happier and more whole.

Writing may require plenty of solitary time, attention and focus but it needn’t be lonely. Instead, it can give you a chance to learn hopefulness so you can keep helplessness at bay. 


Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 


My video podcast last week gave recommendations on the most helpful editing software. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


Have you ever experimented with any of the techniques of learned hopefulness? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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