3 Ways to Engender Hope Among Youth who Fear for the Future

A positive feedback loop that's good for kids and the world

Posted Mar 20, 2019

'IMSA Student Productions'
IMSA students, Aurora, IL
Source: 'IMSA Student Productions'

In February, I gave a talk to 650 students at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), a publicly-funded 10th-12th-grade learning laboratory, whose graduates represent a Who’s Who of tech company founders and leaders in business, education, and science.

My goal was to help these students understand the importance of acquiring the skills to become solutionaries who are dedicated to identifying and solving systemic challenges and building a healthier and more just world for people, animals, and the environment.

At one point, I asked them to raise their hands if they ever felt despair or hopelessness about the future of the world. About half of their hands went up.

To be honest, I was surprised that more hands weren’t raised, because of an experience I’d had several years earlier with a group of 5th and 6th graders.

I had asked that group of middle school students to tell me what they thought the biggest problems in the world were, and I filled up a whiteboard with their concerns. I was surprised by how much some of these ten- and eleven-year-olds knew. One boy said, “sex trafficking.”

Then I asked them to raise their hands if they could imagine us solving the problems they’d listed, and of the forty-five children in the room, only five hands went up.

I thought: If these young people can’t even imagine us solving the problems they named, what will motivate them to try?

So I changed course and led a two-minute visualization.

I asked them to close their eyes, take some deep breaths, and imagine themselves very old, approaching the end of a long life. I described a flourishing future, painting a vivid picture of clean air and water, and a world without poverty, war, or cruelty to people or animals.

Then I asked them to imagine a child approaching them. I told them this child had been studying history in school and wanted to understand how the world had changed so significantly. I invited them to imagine the child asking this question: “What role did you play in helping to bring about our better world?’ I ended the visualization by prompting the students to answer the child’s question in their minds. 

With their eyes still closed, I asked them to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving the problems they’d listed. This time forty hands went up. I was relieved that for the great majority, a positive vision of the future - and an image of their role in its unfolding - restored some hope.

I had the opportunity to speak to another group of fifth graders a few years later, and I asked them a similar question: “How many of you think we can solve the world’s problems?”

This time, every hand went up.

What was the difference? In this case, their teacher had been introducing them to global problems and engaging their participation in taking steps at the local level, such as setting up a composting system for their school.

They knew problems could be solved because they were solving them.

The IMSA high school students were also learning to solve problems, and many of them regularly accomplished real-world goals. I suspect that’s why only about half, rather than most, expressed feelings of hopelessness about the future of the world.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many young people feel hopeless. Not only are they bombarded with news about looming catastrophes, but they also see little being done to transform unsustainable and inhumane systems, and few of them are learning how to be a solutionary.

As 16-year-old climate activist, Greta Thunberg, expressed in her 2018 TED talk, the trajectory of global warming is dire; the extinction of species rapid; and the impact on a growing number of people devastating. Meanwhile, carbon and methane emissions continue to rise.

In her talk, Greta downplays hope, not because hope doesn’t matter, but because it matters so much less than action. However, she is quick to remind her audience, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.”

Greta is right. That’s why action - “the antidote to despair,” as Joan Baez put it - is number one on the following list of ways to engender hope among youth.

If you’re a teacher, counselor, parent, grandparent, or mentor, and you encounter young people facing hopelessness, cynicism, or despair, try offering the following:

1. Engage youth in solutionary thinking and action. Help them understand the mindsets and systemic structures that perpetuate problems, so they can directly tackle the causes. Think ‘drafting legislation’ rather than ‘beach clean-ups,’ or beach clean-ups in which the trash that’s collected is used in educational campaigns to end the production of single-use plastics rather than just taken to the dump.

2. Remind young people about the progress that has been made. Despite persistent global challenges, there have been profound positive changes. Extreme poverty has declined dramatically across the globe; women and disenfranchised peoples have gained rights denied within the lifetimes of most readers of this post; egregious cruelties perpetrated on animals have been made illegal in many places. Although there is much to do, progress is not only real but also a reminder of what’s possible.

3. Share positive news and be careful not to inundate youth with bad news. The news is usually bad, not because more bad things are happening in the world than good, but because that’s what news outlets focus on. Young people need their bad news meted out age appropriately and in manageable doses, something that, as adults, we need to balance for them because they are hearing bad news earlier and earlier through social media. It’s crucial that they hear about successes and positive acts in which they can engage.

As you may have noticed the suggestions above represent a positive feedback loop: engage in systemic change; ground oneself in realistic assessments of progress; balance exposure to persistent problems with positive achievements that lead to engaging in systemic change….

Even if you follow these suggestions, there will likely be times when the young people in your life feel despair for the future. If and when that happens, remind them that their integrity matters.

Integrity means living according to one’s values. If a child values kindness, compassion, courage, honesty, generosity, perseverance, and other such qualities, living accordingly becomes its own reward, engendering its own positive feedback loop.