Professor spreads hope

KU educator searches for 'why we do what we do'

He calls it the only job he’s ever had. Rick Snyder, distinguished professor of psychology at Kansas University, came to KU in 1972.

Snyder spent two years as an assistant professor of psychology. In 1974, he became director of KU’s clinical psychology program and was director for 27 years. Snyder has won many awards and honors for his work as director and professor, including the HOPE Award, or “Honor for the Outstanding Progressive Educator,” in 1991 and 2004. Award winners are chosen by the KU senior class.

Snyder also is associated with hope in a different sense. In 1987, he became interested in the topic of hope after interviewing people about their career and life goals.

“Hope is what keeps us going,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in what motivates us, why we do the things we do.”

Snyder’s initial interest in hope has led to an ongoing effort to discover ways to teach people to be more hopeful and to develop programs to instill hope in college students and younger students.

Q: Why did you come to KU?

A: When I got here, I just fell in love with the place — the university, the town, the people and the department.

Q: Why did you decide to step away from your directing duties in 2001?

A: It seemed to me that after 27 years, other people should have the opportunity that I had to be the director of this program. I had also accomplished most of the things I wanted. And lastly, I was sort of curious what it was like to be a regular professor. I had never really had that other than a few months after I first came here as an brand new assistant professor. I was curious what it was like to teach your classes and do your research but not have many hours a week that were spent in administration.

Rick Snyder, distinguished professor of psychology at Kansas University, researches hope. Snyder is working on ways to teach people to be more hopeful.

Q: What’s your favorite class to teach?

A: Individual Differences. It’s my signature course, and it’s synonymous with me. It’s all about people, what makes us special, how we react to other people and what motivates us to do the things we do. These things seem to be just fascinating questions. In the year 2004, as the United States becomes more and more racially mixed and multicultural, I think the course becomes even more important as a lesson in human differences. … It’s a pathway to tomorrow. It helps them to be able to cope better with an America that I see coming. It’s coming very quickly.

Q: What has been the most interesting or surprising finding in your research on hope?

A: First, hope has been so robust in predicting outcomes in people’s lives. … I never anticipated that it would have as much power, positive power, to change people. Another surprise was that hopeful people seem to be interested in their own goals and they’re also interested in other people’s goals.

There’s a concept that was popular about 10 to 15 years ago called the Type A Behavior Pattern. A Type A person is a very goal-oriented person… I was kind of concerned that a hopeful person was the same as a Type A person. It turns out they’re not because a Type A person is only concerned about himself or herself where the hopeful person is concerned about other people. So we actually like to have hopeful people around us.

Full name: Charles Richard Snyder.Birthday: Dec. 26, 1944.Born: Omaha, Neb.Family: Rebecca Lee Snyder, wife; three children, Staci Kemerling, James Kemerling and Zach Snyder; and two grandchildren, Drew Kemerling, 12, and Trenton Snyder, 2.Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, Southern Methodist University, 1967; master’s degree in psychology, Vanderbilt University, 1968; doctorate in clinical psychology with a minor in research methodology, Vanderbilt University, 1971; and post doctorate fellowship in medical psychology, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, 1972.Books written: 22.Favorite place at Kansas University: “Wherever I am when I am teaching.”Hobbies: Exercising, spending time with his grandchildren and fishing with his son.

Q: How is hope different than optimism?

A: An optimist believes that he or she can have things turn out the way they want. But that optimist may not have the pathways. So an optimist has the motivation, but he or she does not necessarily have the pathways.

Q: Then what is the difference between hope and motivation?

A: Hope is a way of defining precisely, I think, human motivation. Just because you’re motivated, it doesn’t mean you know how to get where you want to go. Hope would have that cognitive or thinking component of “How am I going to get there? What are my plans to get where I want to go in life?”

Q: Have you noticed a difference in the level of hope in children compared to adults?

A: We’ve studied hope in children all the way from grade school on up. Generally I think that children are pretty hopeful. Unfortunately what happens is that circumstances occur to take hope out of certain children. But I think the natural state of children is to be hopeful — if you talk to a little child, they are filled with goals and motivation.

Q: What’s the next step in your research?

A: We are looking at various ways to teach people to be hopeful. One project that we have is to take low-hope students who are entering the University of Kansas, and I also want to have a project across all colleges and universities in the state of Kansas to use hope to try to help the students who have low hope have a better likelihood of graduating. … Another project we’re working on is to help adolescent males who have had some difficulties. We’re teaching them how to think hopefully.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like us to know?

A: I get asked a lot about change, about using hope to change the world. My goal is to get just a few people to live their lives more hopefully. I think if you do that, maybe hope can have a ripple effect. I don’t have any grandiose goals or anything, but I think it can make a difference if we just try to instill hope in our own small corners of the world.