How to foster hope among university students in sustainability education

by Sanna Stålhammar

A sense of hopelessness and eco-anxiety has spread amongst youth in recent years. Increased information and dystopian scenarios related to the climate and ecological crisis paired with no immediate solution leads to feelings of grief, anxiety, stress, and despair about the future. These negative emotions do not systematically translate into positive collective actions. In a recently published paper, we investigate the idea of hope as a generative force for pro-environmental action, and uncover strategies for fostering constructive hope amongst university students.

The idea of hope as a motivator is an understudied topic, and has been subject to criticism among environmental activists, like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, given their motto: “Hope dies, action begins”. While this criticism refers to hope as a source of inaction, or a type of blind optimism, the study instead draws on the idea of ‘constructive hope’, defined as a form of hope leading to sustained emotional stability and proactive engagement through both individual and collective actions. The study examines, through interviews, how students enrolled in university programs related to global environmental challenges perceive and experience the role of education for fostering constructive hope.

The findings are presented according to four characteristics of constructive hope: goal setting, pathway thinking, agency thinking, and emotional reinforcement. The study shows how students perceive the importance of: collaboratively constructing and empowering locally grounded objectives in education; reinforcing trust in the collective potential and external (private and public organisations) actors; raising students’ perceived self-efficacy through practical applications; teaching different coping strategies related to the emotional consequences of education on students’ well-being.

We provide practical recommendations to encourage and develop constructive hope at multiple levels of university education (see table below), including structures, programs, courses and among students’ interactions. Practitioners should strive to connect theoretical learning and curriculum content with practice, provide space for emotional expressions, release the pressure from climate anxiety, and to foster a stronger sense of community among students. Overall, higher education institutions need to take actions to prevent hopelessness amongst students, and to engage with emotional and proactive aspects of sustainability in order to support a sense of hope that leads to action.

Recommended approaches to foster constructive hope and proactive engagement in university programs related to global environmental problems

Vandaele, M., & Stålhammar, S. (2022). “Hope dies, action begins?” The role of hope for proactive sustainability engagement among university students. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 23(8), 272–289.


Sanna is a post-doctoral researcher at SLU, working in the VIVA-Plan project. She is an interdisciplinary sustainability scientist interested in the social dimension of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Her doctoral research (Lund University) draws on critical social science perspectives and examines approaches for values and valuation of ecosystem services and biodiversity. She is passionate about exploring plural ways of knowing nature and strives to develop inclusive approaches for knowledge integration and transformative governance beyond anthropocentrism.

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