Emotional Health

On the Bright Side: A Day at the Beach

FullSizeRenderIllustration by C.A. Martin

Last month, the World Bank and the World Health Organization held meetings with the agenda of promoting mental health, and one of the simple ideas proposed recently is that we could all benefit from spending time close to the water.

It may not exactly be Lourdes, but researchers at Michigan State University have found that living near the ocean has a positive effect on mental health. Studying residents in Wellington, New Zealand, they found that those who lived near the water reported less psychological distress. While this might seem obvious, the theory held up even when coastal-dwelling residents were compared with people who lived near green spaces such as parks.

Others have found correlations between coastal living and better mental health, and have documented that the ocean has many positive effects on health and well-being. As early as the 18th century, doctors were prescribing trips to the shore or visits to “bathing hospitals”—clinics that offered seawater treatments. This recent research studied the effects of actually being able to see the water from your home. While many studies have shown that being near nature also has a positive effect on mental health, this study was more specific. Water seems to brighten people’s moods and decrease stress in general. No wonder Hawaii is the highest-rated state in the nation in terms of both physical and mental health, according to the annual Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index.

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One can easily think of other things that might make residents of the Aloha State feel good, such as sunshine and the mellow vibe of the islands. Furthermore, people who can afford water views are generally wealthier than others, which may in itself cause a reduction in stress (though not an automatic improvement in happiness, as you might expect).

Nevertheless, researchers controlled for these factors and say that it is the water itself that makes the difference. What they don’t know is if this effect extends to all types of water or is unique to seascapes. The New Zealand study’s residents all lived close to either the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean, and other factors, such as the sound of the waves or the sea air coming off the ocean, could be influencing the data. Similar studies need to be conducted to judge if areas like the Great Lakes might be similarly health-promoting.

Still, it’s no wonder that many people choose to go to the beach for vacations. They may be instinctively gravitating to the most relaxing, mentally soothing place they can.  I have often wondered why I like going to the beach so much, since I rarely go into the water and limit my sun exposure. Mostly, I sit under an umbrella and read. If what I want is an excuse to read, couldn’t that be accomplished elsewhere? I have tried it, though, and it’s just not the same.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. May 23, 2016 at 7:26 am

    This is an excellent idea that we can use to improve our mental health. Thank you, Dr. Ford for these reminders for how we feel when we are in touch with the sound, the smell and feel when we are on the beach or near the water. Sometimes when I can’t break a too little sleep cycle, I head to a small hotel on the beach where the sound of the waves is the most effective lullaby in my life.