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Mental Health

Seeing Blue: Why Spending Time by the Water Can Improve Your Mental Health

Even just thinking about it can create a sense of peace and calm.

Imagine this: You’ve taken a trip to the seaside for the weekend. The autumn air is brisk, and you pull your coat more tightly around your chest. The sand is cool and soft beneath your feet, granules sticking between your toes as you walk toward the waves. Seaweed and salt spray fill your nose; gulls cry above. You reach the shoreline and let the water wash over your feet, tiny seashells tumbling over your skin. You breathe in…and out.

If we told you that spending time by the water is good for your mental health, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. Even just thinking about it can create a sense of peace and relaxation. But why is it so ingrained in us to love bodies of water? According to a new study, the answer might go all the way back to our childhoods. Researchers from the University of Exeter found that adults with better mental health are likely to have spent time around water during their childhood.

The Study: Connecting Childhood Memories to Mental Wellbeing in Adulthood

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and it was conducted across 18 different countries and regions. Those areas included 14 European countries and four non-European regions (Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, and California).

In the survey, researchers asked participants to recall their childhood from 0 to 16 years of age. Respondents were asked whether they’d lived near “blue spaces” — think oceans, lakes, ponds, or rivers — and how often they spent time there. They were also asked: 1) how comfortable their parents or guardians were with them playing in these areas; 2) how often they’d visited blue spaces in the last four weeks; 3) how valuable they thought natural settings are for wellbeing; 4) whether they felt mentally healthy in the last two weeks.

Here’s what the researchers found: People who spent more time in blue spaces as children placed more value in these areas than other respondents. In addition, people who greatly valued blue spaces visited them more as adults. Those same adults tended to have better mental health.

“Our findings suggest that building familiarity and confidence in and around blue spaces during childhood may stimulate an inherent joy of nature and encourage people to seek out recreational nature experiences, with beneficial consequences for adult mental health,” Valeria Vitale, lead author and PhD Candidate at Sapienza University of Rome, said in a press release.

The study had limitations. Researchers could not control other things happening in the respondents’ lives, things that could uplift or dampen moods and change the way the participants answered the survey. There’s also a likelihood that people who visit blue spaces frequently have the money to do so and tend to live healthier lifestyles — two factors that improve mental wellbeing in their own right. While the study authors could adjust the data to account for these variations, they could not control them.

More Proof That Bodies of Water Improve Mental Health

Still, previous research backs up the theory that blue spaces play an important role in mental health. These benefits extend to all adults — even those who didn’t spend as much time around bodies of water as children. For example, an extensive 2013 study collected data on 20,000 participants via a smartphone app. At random times, the app would prompt users to answer a brief set of questions to assess their mental wellbeing in relation to their environment. On average, the participants were significantly happier when they spent time in natural settings as opposed to urban areas.

Another study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology (published in 2010) found that humans prefer blue spaces even in photographs. Participants had to list their favorite photographs out of 120 options, and most people preferred photos containing water. People also tended to think photos with an “aquatic feature” were more likely to create a sense of peace and calm.

Why does blue space make such a positive impression on us? “Water takes you away from distractions and simplifies the visual landscape,” Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, a marine biologist and author of Blue Mind, once said in an interview. In a fast-paced world full of stress and screens, the peaceful blue gives us a chance to pause and reset. Gazing at water is similar to meditation, in this sense.

While scientists are still coming up with theories about the peace-inducing power of water, it’s clear that it has a positive influence. So if you’re feeling stressed, take some time to visit a body of water near you, no matter how small — it could be a stream, pond, reservoir, or beach. And if that’s not possible, re-create some of the experience at home. Play the sounds of waves or a babbling brook while you work. Set your desktop screensaver to an image of water. It won’t take much to instill inner peace.

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