What's the best way to predict whether a freshman will return to college for her second semester, asks the man standing with a microphone at the front of the room.
No, it isn't that freshman's grade-point average. No, it isn't her ACT score, nor her class rank from high school.
You'll never get this, so I'm going to do you a favor and tell you now. The best predictor of whether a freshman returns to college for his or her second semester is hope. That's right: hope.
If a student has hope, as measured in studies designed by Shane Lopez — he's the man speaking to a packed Gallup auditorium on this Tuesday afternoon — then that student will likely return for a second semester.
If that student has a low level of hope in that same test, chances are far better that she is moving back in with mom and dad.
“Hope is not this wispy thing,” Lopez tells a rapt audience. “It pulls you through daily life.”
Lopez, a senior scientist at Gallup, is known around the company as “the world's leading researcher on hope.”
He thinks we can define hope. He thinks we can harness it.
He thinks we can ride it like a buckin' bronco, and if we hold on tight, it stops bucking and we race toward the finish line.
“If we can tell ourselves a compelling story about the future, a story that's reasonable and realistic but still compelling, ... if we tell that story to ourselves when we go to sleep, then we can wake up and hit the ground running,” Lopez says in an interview before his speech.
This isn't some sort of New Age mumbo jumbo, nor is it the advice Chevy Chase gave a caddy in the movie “Caddyshack.”
This is nearly two decades of original research on millions of schoolchildren and adult employees, as well as analysis of existing studies done all over the world. It's also the subject of Lopez's newest book, “Making Hope Happen,” the veteran Gallup scientist's latest attempt to measure and assign importance to an emotion that people often see as immeasurable and unimportant.
Like this: Kids who score high on surveys designed to measure hope do one letter grade better in school.
And this: As adults, they miss fewer days of work.
And this: A “high-hope” salesman sells as much in six days as his low-hope co-worker does in seven.
These hopeful, high-achieving people aren't just optimistic, Lopez tells the hundreds of Gallup employees and others who have shown up to hear him lecture and sign books.
Instead, they are optimists who also have big goals. And they are goal setters who also can take these big goals and break them down into smaller, more manageable plans. And they are planners who won't be deterred if they have to go to Plan B or Plan C.
Just as we misidentify what hope is, we also make bad assumptions about who has it and who doesn't, says Lopez, a fellow of the American Psychological Association who is now a business professor at the University of Kansas.
There is no correlation between hope and income level, he says. None between hope and race, or hope and ethnicity.
And there's not even much proof that the young are more innately hopeful than the old, or the healthy more hopeful than the sick.
Lopez remembers meeting a strong, smart man who had lived a long, successful life as a Kansas farmer and then got a diagnosis of manageable kidney problems. He “curled into the fetal position,” Lopez says.
He also knows a young woman who had two heart transplants by the time she hit puberty. She has every reason to be demoralized but, instead, “she's a fantastic student, she laughs and jokes and is funny, and she is one of my child's favorite baby sitters.”
“No one has cornered the market on hope,” Lopez says. “Black, white, Latino, red state or blue state, it turns out to be pretty evenly distributed around the world.”
The most hopeful thing may be that hope can be taught and learned, Lopez thinks.
In a famous and oft-repeated psychology test, researchers have their subjects take their nondominant hand and plunge it into a bucket of ice-cold water.
The people who have been identified as “low hope” leave their hand in the ice water for a while and then pull it out.
The hopeful subjects leave their hand in the ice water for a while, and then they make a fist. Or they begin to hop around on both feet.
Or they begin to say the alphabet to themselves or try another mental trick to take their minds off the increasingly unpleasant task.
They keep their hands in the ice-cold water twice as long as the person who has no hope.
After decades of study, there is no real mystery why, Lopez says. The hopeful person makes plans, not pie-in-the-sky wishes, but actual concrete plans. (Like, I can keep my hand in this water for 10 minutes.)
They are able to tell themselves that compelling story of their futures — a realistic vision of where they would like to go.
And they are able to design different paths to get to the goal, like balling their hand into a fist to protect it from the ice-cold water, and saying the alphabet to distract the brain when the balled fist gets cold.
Hopeful people are optimistic, but also creative and resilient.
And Shane Lopez is pretty sure anyone can become more hopeful, if they surround themselves with hopeful people and then practice.
“Let's defuzzify hope,” he says. “It's a cause and an effect. Hope drives performance.”
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