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Dr. Grauer's Column - Optimism and the Natural World

Optimism and the Natural World
2019 Graduation - Dr. Stuart Grauer's Keynote Address to Seniors

Thank you to our faculty and board. Welcome to parents, dignitaries, neighbors, friends from near, friends and family who traveled far, and welcome to the class of 2019.

Why do some people focus on positives, on gratitude and on connection? …while others focus on the dark, the petty, the gossip, the separateness they feel? Can optimism and positivity be learned from the natural world? 

I hope these questions will become the greater focus of education, and our senior class is proving their efficacy.

Optimism is a habit of mind. It comes from practice. You seniors have had a fairly Socratic, inquiry-based education. Going forward, you will easily notice the optimists: they are the ones asking wilder questions. Even when all others are stuck, they ask “why” 10 times more. Until they find wide-open possibility that seems to fly in the face of existing reality. When you keep hearing things like, “wouldn’t it be cool if…?” — keep listening. You are with an optimist.  

It’s not true that only little children skip and hop. In school, instead of saying “you youths are wild and we need to civilize and tame you,” what if we said, “you youths have become tame, let us restore and cherish your wild selves.”

The Grauer School's Class of 2019 at a weekly assembly - March 5, 2019

We know, from much research, and from personal experience, that those among us who frequent lush, green wilderness, hear the sounds and feel the sensations from natural environments, are experiencing greater feelings of optimism and gratitude, as well as producing positive brain chemistry. There is a simple relationship between the natural world, optimism and health. [1] For instance, neuroscientists have found that, with time in nature, our brains produce oxytocin. [2]

With a squirt of oxytocin and some related well-known hormones, we become more empathic, more giving, even more environmentally attuned—we are more aware. People perceive us as warmer and we perceive them as warmer. The change moves through our cortex. We become more socially conscious. More altruistic. Over time, with practice, our brain changes and we show patterns of this behavior.

Mix with sunshine and exercise, and with habit over time, our brain changes itself in concert with our practices, and it does so throughout our lives.

Our school, The Grauer School, is small and connected, like a tribe. In your senior portfolio defenses, some of you noted that you have grown to have fewer barriers between you and classmates, mentors, and the larger world.

You have come of age on our campus with no place to hide from teachers in back rows or hallways. Over time, we have watched your vulnerabilities become you, worn on your sleeve. They rode with you on expedition. You brought them along with you to Yosemite, West Virginia, to the orphanage in Kenya, snorkeling at Catalina, to the freedom bell in Philadelphia, surfing and school visiting in Panama, hunting and tracking together in the California central valley, swimming with whale sharks in Baja, hiking on Mammoth Mountain, playing music up and down the coast, checking out college campuses in New York and New England, and as far as Taiwan and France. You closed out most of those trips with gratitude circles with mentors and peers, a sacred Grauer School tradition.

Grauer Senior Kiana H. '19 with native dancers on a Grauer Expedition in Kenya, Africa - September 2018

In wilderness and outdoors with your teachers and classmates, you all have been overcoming yourselves, your own fears, hang-ups, pains, hassles, mean people, stubborn forces that don’t want to move, the unfairness of rivers, borders and walls that are physical but also mental. You’ve grown into someone whose primary attitude, whose default disposition, is not stuck in narrow world views or victimization or fear, not hung up on having to get an A for its own sake or on who notices you, but someone who moves down the river of gratitude and connection, yea, some turbulence and chop sometimes, but moving on down — never back, we’re gonna move on, got it?

Professor Francesca Gino at Harvard found people who practice optimism daily even dream better. Optimists dream wild. They’re more attentive, alert, energetic, feel happy about life in general. They even get and keep more jobs.

People have been discussing the impact of nature on the human spirit for hundreds of years, probably thousands—from St. Francis, to Thoreau to John Muir, to Einstein, to you. Today, neuroscientists are finding changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature. Heart rate, blood pressure and various bodily systems all are impacted powerfully.

Time in nature makes us happier and breaks down the barriers between us.

At Senior Portfolio Defense presentations, one senior said: “You guys have become my brothers and sisters.” Another senior noted: “Grauer and all of you have taught me not to be afraid to be affectionate with my friends.” 

At The Grauer School senior class graduation defenses, I witnessed outpourings of appreciation for how funny, compassionate, and caring your teachers are, too. Senior Sarah Xu said: “Every day I experience love and kindness here.” Kiana detailed how when students expand their lives in travel and culture, they open their hearts. 

Grauer Senior Sarah X. '19 making her Senior Defense presentation - May 8, 2019

I left those senior presentations trusting you all more, happier to sign diplomas, trusting that our minds could be bigger than most of the issues that drag us down, trusting that our hearts are even bigger than our minds, which is true courage. 

Class of 2019, your level of courage is off the charts, and if anyone wants evidence beyond your senior graduation defense presentations, all they’d need to do is look at the unique list of post high school plans you are making–you are not falling into job slots, you are creating lives …and while doing so you are singing, writing, rambling, riding, creating, working hard, and experiencing the wild.

It’s time to wrap it up now, Seniors: We’re handing off to you. I think you know the world will not manufacture meaning for you. You can’t cut and paste it. You can’t get heart Door Dashed to you and you definitely will not find it on social media or google. 

Many people you will meet, even among the supposedly wise, have made the case that the evil outweighs the good in nature, but this is not true. All meaning already exists in nature’s rhythms, beyond good or evil. And this is our nature, too.

You can’t fool your spirit. You can’t fool your pineal gland, your adrenals, your parasympathetic system, your subconscious. They will be the judges of your optimism. They will determine if the horse lowers it head and softens its muzzle when you approach, or stiffens.

At our closing luncheon together, here is what you told me: You said, “Leaders are open to always learning more about those around them.”
You said, not only that “leaders inspire those around them to find and express their passions,” but you also noted that this is the very impact you have all had upon one another, as classmates. 

Grauer Senior Parker Y. '19 making his Senior Defense presentation - May 10, 2019

You have this connection now. You have shared a wild, four-year pilgrimage called high school, soon to be just the gleam in your eye whenever you see someone from this class, and here it is, described by senior Parker Yates who said, “Surrounding yourself with nature is so extremely important, whether it’s just taking a walk by yourself or being up in the mountains with your friends. …I was lucky enough to be able to come to a school that values nature as much as I do…that deepened my love for nature.”

Thank you, Parker, and all of this class, for showing me the meaning of connection, the great lesson of ecology:

Wildness is not just a place you can escape to in the world. Wildness is the whole world: the whole of creation, expressing itself through each one of us. 

Thank you, students, thank you, parents and ancestors before you, thank you, teachers.


[1] Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation, PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), July 14, 2015.

[2] Oxytocin is a chemical triggered by a bit of electrical activity in the hypothalamus in the brain, and it has a huge role in social and spiritual engagement. The way we influence our own hypothalamus determines if we will be aggressive or cooperative. We can be threatening, greedy cortisol producers or heartfelt encouragers and guardians.

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The Grauer School's Class of 2019 at a weekly assembly - March 5, 2019

Grauer Senior Kiana H. '19 with native dancers on a Grauer Expedition in Kenya, Africa - September 2018

Grauer Senior Sarah X. '19 making her Senior Defense presentation - May 8, 2019

Grauer Senior Parker Y. '19 making his Senior Defense presentation - May 10, 2019

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