Why Being Near Water Could Be the Key to Boosting Happiness, According to Science
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath and imagine sitting beside a body of water. Perhaps it's a serene lake, a lake so big you can barely make out the other side. Or maybe it's a sugar-sand beach with crystalline waters that feel like a warm bath to the touch. Sit. Hear the water lap against either shore. Feel the breeze. Take it all in. Odds are you're feeling calmer already. That's because, according to science, being around water can help our mental health in myriad ways and be the key to lasting happiness.
"Humans love being around water because something about it is inherently calming," says Sanam Hafeez, a New York City–based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. "Perhaps for some, water takes them back to their youth, to swimming in a pool, lake, or ocean. Bodies of water have a dream-like quality to them, much like clouds, and allow us to see different shapes and imagine limitless possibilities. Just staring at water allows our minds to be still and peaceful."
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Hafeez isn't alone in this thinking. In 2016, researchers from the United Kingdom published a study on nature's "calming and stress-reducing effects on humans." Researchers measured the heart rates and blood pressure of participants as they watched various fish tanks: one empty, one partially stocked with fish and plants, and the last one with double the number of animals. The study found, on average, "visitors stayed longer in front of the exhibit when it contained the greatest level of marine life," supporting the team's hypothesis that "people gained more benefit from the exhibit when it was fully stocked. From a psychological perspective, it might be that the greater levels of biota [animal and plant life] provided greater levels of interest and fascination and the opportunity to disengage from the mundane, all elements which have previously been shown to aid psychological restoration." Perhaps most importantly, the team also found that even staring at an empty tank filled with water had some positive psychological effect, meaning water alone does something to our psyche.
"Living near water, whether it's the ocean or a small lake in your backyard, isn't just nice scenery; studies show there are many health benefits. It can lower blood pressure, decrease stress, bring on relaxation, improve creativity, and bring about a general sense of happiness," explains Vinay Saranga, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry in North Carolina. "I believe that people like being around water because it reminds them of the color blue, which represents relaxation, tranquility, and calmness."
And they aren't the only ones convinced of water's seemingly magical powers over our mental health. The BlueHealth project, for example, is one pan-European organization dedicated to "systematically explor[ing] the impacts that urban waterways can have on health." From 2016 to 2020 the organization has conducted more than 20 studies across 18 countries, including a survey of 18,000 people across Europe investigating the population-level relationships between blue spaces and human health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that the more time people spend near water, the better they feel.
"We know this simply from analyzing people's habits, in terms of where they tend to visit and what they tend to value," James Grellier, an environmental epidemiologist and BlueHealth's project manager, shared with The Washington Post. "For example, we know that people spend more money on [hotel] rooms with sea views."
Most importantly, Grellier noted that you don't need to travel to faraway islands or go on weeks-long beachside vacations to reap the benefits of being near water. Even just engaging in "informal social activities like playing with kids, paddling, sunbathing," at nearby lakes, beaches, riverways, or watering holes will do the trick. "It doesn't sound like rocket science," he added, "but the point is that these things have never been explored using validated psychological questionnaires." Need more proof? We dare you to go to your nearest body of water and sit quietly for five minutes, just as you envisioned at the top of this story. You'll probably notice that you don't need scientific research to tell you what your mind, body, and soul already know about the mood-boosting benefits of being near a peaceful body of water.