Why Being Near Water Makes Us Happier
From Conde Nast Traveler:
Every time my brother crosses the Sagamore Bridge from mainland Massachusetts to Cape Cod, we all know where he’s headed: a sandy spot off an ocean road on the Nantucket Sound, home to the little beach club my family has belonged to for over 30 years. On clear days, you can see the shores of Martha’s Vineyard in the distance. That’s his water.
If you talk to Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., a marine biologist and the author of Blue Mind, a book about the physical and psychological benefits of water, for long enough, he’ll eventually ask you what your water is. And as it turns out, nearly everyone has an answer.
Since humans started exploring the planet, we’ve followed the water. Crossing oceans gave way to new discoveries and changed the course of history; chasing rivers opened our horizons. As travelers, we seek waterways on vacation, driving new coastlines in search of wild surf spots. We return to familiar “blue spaces” we grew up around. Month after month, water graces the covers of travel magazines like ours.
The immeasurable sense of peace that we feel around water is what Nichols calls our “blue mind”—a chance to escape the hyper-connected, over-stimulated state of modern day life, in favor of a rare moment of solitude. Research has long found that humans are pulled toward Mother Nature’s blue for, in part, its restorative benefits. Take the Victorians for example: Doctors in that era prescribed “sea air” as a cure for all sorts of issues, from pulmonary complications to mental health conditions.
More recent studies—including those out of a UK-based project called Blue Gym—have found that people who live near the coasts are generally healthier and happier. Other studies find that when shown photographs of natural green spaces, people’s stress levels drop, but the more blue spaces in the photos, the more people prefer them. Nichols, who has spent the last 25 years studying our relationship to water, has heard of everything from a drop of dew on a flower to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, providing a sense of calm.
Real estate data even suggests a water view tacks a 116.1 percent premium on a property; and real-world figures suggest we’re willing to pay 10 to 20 percent more for the same room with a sea view in a hotel. For the ultimate in luxury, we seek out overwater bungalows in the Maldives, and underwater hotels all around the world. And even in places where water isn’t always a given, such as urban metropolises like Pittsburgh and Austin, crowds frequent refurbished river ways and gather in fresh water pools. Paris, too, now has its long-anticipated canal swimming pools, where tourists and locals alike can take a dip.
Our love of water is pervasive, and the reasons behind why we travel—and rack up vast credit card bills—to be by the water can be hard to articulate. “You’re paying for a feeling,” Nichols tells Condé Nast Traveler. “When you ask people to describe that feeling, it’s hard for them to describe other than to say they really like it, need it, and are willing to pay a lot of money for it.”
Take travelers by their own words. Cassie Abel, 34, a communications manager in Sun Valley, ID grew up on Vashon Island, WA, the largest island in the Puget Sound. “I love the water because it’s so much bigger and more powerful than anything else on Earth,” she says. “It’s moody—sometimes it’s the most calming presence, sometimes the most turbulent.”
Lara Rosenbaum, a 38-year-old writer and editor based in landlocked Nashville shares a similar sentiment. “Water pulls on me the way the moon pulls on it. It’s just in my blood and bones. It makes me feel alive in a deep, calm way. It sort of brings me in.”
Rosenbaum isn’t wrong, either. While water makes up about 70 percent of the human body (and about 70 percent of Earth), it also comprises 31 percent of our bones. “When we are by the water it…cuts us off from the rattle and hum of modern society,” says Nichols. “Moving water is expert at masking noise, especially the sound of the human voice,” he says, noting that the human voice is considered the number one source of workplace stress.
Offering us an auditory break, water even helps us fall asleep. “There is some research that says people may sleep better when they are adjacent to nature,” explains W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution. “No wonder sleep machines always feature the sounds of rain, the ocean, or a flowing river.” One small study out of Northwestern University found that people who fell asleep listening to “pink noise”—sounds like rushing water or rain falling on pavement—not only slept more deeply but the experience also boosted their memories.
Jim Tselikis, co-founder of Cousins Maine Lobster, grew up in a small coastal town in Maine where everything from the rising and lowering of tides to the smell of fresh salty ocean air plays a role in the everyday. He remembers a fog horn from Portland Head Light, a mile from his bedroom. “The sound was so soothing. It represented the ocean, where I loved to be on muggy summer days, when I wanted to get away from the stress of school or work, or where I wanted to find peace.”
Currently living in Los Angeles, Tselikis says: “Every time I drift asleep I think of that fog horn back home and my need to someday return.”
When we physically enter the water, our body can rest muscles used every day, and work others that are used far less frequently. Not only that, but we give up gravity, something that’s somatically a break for your brain. For some, time spent in the water is an opportunity for insightful thinking, creative output, and quality conversations.
“If we are close to someone, they join us in that private bubble and conversations become more intimate; an intimate conversation while walking the beach with waves nearby becomes more private,” Nichols says. “People a short distance away can’t hear our words, and 180 degrees or more of our surrounding is open blue space.”
When Jenn Lawson, a 33-year-old member of San Francisco’s South End Rowing Club starts her days swimming in the Bay, she says, “Everything pulls into perspective—my divorce, work worries, anxieties about the future. The world focuses down to the next breath, the feel of the water on my skin, the glimpses of the foggy skyline, or the Golden Gate bridge glowing with the morning sun. In the water, everything becomes clear.”
Marie Stanislaw, a 69-year-old who lives on Vashon Island, WA adds: “Swimming in lakes and oceans, the water encompasses me…I can float for long stretches in salt water and feel totally peaceful.”
Charlie MacArthur, of Aspen Kayak & SUP in Aspen—who grew up surfing in Southern California and Hawaii, but moved out to Colorado for the snow—says that in his early days in the landlocked state, he returned to the coast when the snow melted. “I could not fathom living inland during the summer.” Then he discovered mountain rivers and started raft guiding in 1983. “Soon I was teaching kayaking for the Aspen Kayak school. I also took my surfboard on the river to surf big standing waves that would form during the spring floods,” he says. MacArthur has since traveled the world—New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru—paddling and surfing new rivers and oceans.
So, what do we miss when we miss out on water? Ask Andrew Gray, a 25-year-old from Oklahoma City. Growing up in a landlocked state, he didn’t see the ocean for the first time until college.
“I had watched so many movies, documentaries, and shows and was always fascinated with the idea of not being able to see land on the other side of the water,” he says. “I think the fact that there is this feeling of being ‘trapped’ in a land-locked state just made that desire so much stronger to breathe in the ocean air and lose yourself in its vastness.”
That’s why he signed up for Semester at Sea during college, a four-month-long study abroad program that takes place on a globe-roaming ship. While drifting out of the port of Southampton, England he finally saw the sea up close. “It had such a still and calm presence, but there was this overarching feeling of being in awe and feeling completely tiny and helpless—that there was this force of reckoning beneath my feet. I was completely speechless, just staring off the aft of our ship for about 30 minutes,” he remembers. “It was very humbling, I will never forget it.”
Without water, then, we miss a part of ourselves, perhaps.
A California resident, Nichols recalls natural disasters such as the state’s multi-year drought. “Simple things like taking a shower made you feel bad,” he says. “But if your shower or bath was your moment of solitude and clarity and disconnect—if that was your ‘blue mind’ moment—it was taken away. It became a source of guilt and stress and fear and anger.”
Issues like pollution, oil spills, and droughts don’t just have ecological and economic costs, then, but emotional ones, too, Nichols argues. “Pollution shatters our ‘blue mind’ experience—even in beautiful places,” he says. “The beach can become sad. The ocean can make you angry or frustrated.”
During a U.K. study last year, researchers observed people during a visit to the aquarium: Participants watched an empty tank of water, a partially-stocked tank (home to fish, crustaceans, and plants), then a fully-stocked tank, containing double the number of species. Other experiments involved measuring people’s heart rates and blood pressure while watching either an empty, partially-stocked, or fully-stocked tank. As it turned out, even just looking at an empty body of water at an aquarium proved to be relaxing. But the experience grew boring after time. The antidote? Biodiversity.
As wildlife, flora, and fauna increased in the tank, so too did the therapeutic benefits of standing there. With more wildlife, people’s blood pressure and heart rates dropped; and the longer they wanted to stay. It’s a poignant argument for keeping our planet healthy.
“Our oceans, waterways, and the life they contain are so much more than their ecological, economic, and educational value. They have vast emotional benefits. They make life on earth possible, but also worth living,” says Nichols. “I like to imagine the world would be a better place if we all understood just how true that is. Water is medicine, for everyone, for life.”