Sustainability and Happiness: Next Steps for the United States

The conversations surrounding the link between sustainability and happiness by the international community most significantly the UN all have important implications for future policy and conversations. In fact, as recently as three years ago in 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution specifically, “calling on countries to include happiness in their measurements of progress.” A prime model for UN member nations is the country of Bhutan, who has adopted a seemingly unusual measure of well-being called Gross National Happiness.

While Bhutan’s commitment came from the top, its government, the U.S. will need a grassroots, bottom up approach.

In fact, a quite literal bottoms up. The United States is facing a unique problem and the solution falls with the country’s children.

The growing dependence on computers and technology has impacted the time we allow for children to play in their natural environments. As we become more attached to our electronic devices so do our children. Rather than play a game of hide and seek in the park, children are handed iPads to play games, often in solitude. Our society’s increasing dependence on technology, and our own fear to let our children run wild are to blame.

But in a world where safety of our children is crucial, are iPad games that integrate nature  essentially the next best thing? While, convenience may be the best argument, the benefits of playing in a natural environment surpass those of parental convenience.

Children are not getting the encouragement at school either, as increasing compliance to the Common Core standards and state tests often interfere with the recess we all remember.

Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods,” focuses on the diminished relationship between children and their environment. Louv cites that the positive benefits of nature for children seem to exceed those of adults. By encouraging the natural play of kids, we will see a decline in the mental illness and disorders affecting our children today while also promoting a life-long positive association with the earth.


Richard Louv Discusses the Nature Deficit Disorder / Video Courtesy of YouTube

Louv defines the problem as nature-deficit disorder, which he describes as, “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” We must make a commitment to re-socialize our children with their natural environments.

F. Stephan Mayer et al,. a team of researchers at Oberlin College and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign determined if our so-called virtual nature experience could in fact mediate our real experience. Because arguably if we do not act swiftly enough to combat climate change, one day our children will only know some of our most beautiful natural resources by what they can see on a screen.

The researchers developed a study where participants either spent a short amount of time simply walking through a natural environment, an urban environment, or simply watched videos of both nature and urban environments. They concluded that in all three of the studies, “exposure to nature increased connectedness to nature, attentional capacity, positive emotions, and ability to reflect on a life problem.” They found, however, that, all of these positive benefits are greater for actual nature as opposed to the virtual nature experience. So while in moments when parents are unable to provide their children with the direct natural experience a virtual one, such as watching a Planet Earth video still offers benefits, it cannot replace the real thing.

Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies explored the relationship between childhood nature experiences to adult relationships with the environment. They interviewed over 2,000 adults aged 18 to 90 who live in urban areas in the United States asking about their relationship with nature as children. The researchers concluded that, “childhood participation with nature may set an individual on a trajectory toward adult environmentalism.” Wells and Lekies determined that participation with both “wild” nature, such as hiking or camping and a more “domesticated” nature, including picking with flowers, are both positively correlated with “adult environmental attitudes.”

To promote the benefits of our natural environment on our happiness we must allow our children opportunities for natural play. Not only will we instill life long positive environmental beliefs but they also have the opportunity to inspire their parents.





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