Tolstoy's First Condition of Happiness


“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” –  Leo Tolstoy 

Some may find this surprising, but as an educator, there are times I often wonder if I'm more doing more harm than good.  Don't get me wrong, I take pride in what I do to promote literacy and critical thinking. But, there are other facets of my job in an institution that deprive kids of the very thing they need most - time outdoors.  Now, in fairness, I teach in an alternative high school, so I do have more freedom than most teachers, and we do get outside some.  Nonetheless, the very nature of my job contributes to a syndrome known as, Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by renowned author Richard Louv.    

 Louv writes:  

“Although human beings have been urbanizing, and then moving indoors, since the introduction of agriculture, social and technological changes in the past three decades have accelerated the human disconnect from the natural world. Among the reasons: the proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media.”   

He cites the among the many costs of nature deprivation are diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, and child and adult obesity, among others. 

Of course, this is nothing new.  A century earlier, Tolstoy observed: 

“For what, according to the general estimate, are the principal conditions of earthly happiness? One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be severed, that is, that he shall be able to see the sky above him, and that he shall be able to enjoy the sunshine, the pure air, the fields with their verdure, their multitudinous life. Men have always regarded it as a great unhappiness to be deprived of all these things. But what is the condition of those men who live according to the doctrine of the world? The greater their success in practicing the doctrine of the world, the more they are deprived of these conditions of happiness. The greater their worldly success, the less they are able to enjoy the light of the sun, the freshness of the fields and woods, and all the delights of country life…These people, surrounded by artificial light instead of sunshine, look only upon fabrics of tapestry and stone and wood fashioned by the hand of man; the roar of machinery, the roll of vehicles, the thunder of cannon, the sound of musical instruments, are always in their ears; they breathe an atmosphere heavy with distilled perfumes and tobacco smoke…Wherever they go, they are like so many captives shut out from the conditions of happiness. As prisoners sometimes console themselves with a blade of grass that forces its way through the pavement of their prison yard…” 

There is a growing body of research that suggests a century later, the problem has only gotten worse, and the costs are far graver than we have ever considered.  We are not just talking about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage that occurs when penned up in artificial enclosures.  We are talking about missing out on the myriad of physical health benefits that result from being outdoors.    

A science teacher in my school takes our students outdoors almost every day be it field trips, nature walks, or community service like picking up litter.  Because our small school lacks an indoor PE facility, I take my PE students outdoors most days, rain or shine.  I believe the positive results of this are felt throughout our school.  Nonetheless, many questions remain. 

I wonder how we can reach consensus that being deprived of a connection to nature is not just a problem, but a crisis?  How can we alter the structure of institutional life to make daily natural connections as important as any other core subject area or occupational task?   Does this pandemic provide us with an opportunity to restructure our institutions in ways that make this more possible?   Do kids really need the “socializing” benefits of artificial enclosures if they come at the expense of time in nature?   I do not pretend to have any answers.  You, however, might.  

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