It's True: Being Near Water Really Does Make Us Happier…
Why Being Near Water Really Does Make Us Happier
There are scientific reasons why we're so drawn to lakes, rivers, and oceans.
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 ofMartha’s Vineyardin the distance. That’shiswater.
If you talk to Wallace J. Nichols, Ph.D., a marine biologist and the author ofBlue 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 ofwild 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 generallyhealthier and happier. Otherstudiesfind 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 estatedataeven 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 outoverwater bungalowsin the Maldives, andunderwater hotelsall 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-anticipatedcanal 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 tellsCondé 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 landlockedNashvilleshares 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 comprises31 percentof 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 ofThe Sleep Solution. “No wonder sleep machines always feature the sounds of rain, the ocean, or a flowing river.” One small study out ofNorthwestern Universityfound 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 ofCousins 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 inLos Angeles, Tselikis says: “Every time I drift asleep I think of that fog horn back home and my need to someday return.”