by Zachary Slobig
If simply being near water boosts happiness, being immersed in it may be even more powerful. The effect is akin to that of meditation...
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The feeling of enhanced well-being that comes from being around water is universal. It explains why people are drawn to water in its many forms and locations--from fountains to beaches. Consuming water is fundamentally necessary to sustain life; it overwhelming comprises the cells in the body. Now cognitive scientists are compiling evidence that proximity to water has perceptible benefits for our minds that include promoting calmness, creativity, focus, overall happiness, and sleep quality.
Exposure to nature and the great outdoors triggers parts of the brain associated with empathy, positive emotion, and self-awareness: the building blocks of happiness. Evidence indicates that aquatic locales activate more happiness compared to any other natural setting. Studies indicate that being in a coastal or marine setting causes a six point increase on the 100-point happiness scale compared to urban settings. This is a greater happiness boost than reported at other nature settings such as farms, mountains, or woods.
Being near water improves happiness, and being immersed in water is even more powerful. The effect compares to meditation. The term blue mind has been coined to describe the calm, peacefulness, unity, and sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment that people feel in and around water.
The blue-mind effect partially results from the action of catecholamine neurotransmitters--which relay stress stress signals in the brain. Around water, these neurochemicals recalibrate to levels similar to the effects of meditation. Handling stress may be as simple as getting to the beach. Simply bringing thoughts of water to mind also confers comfort.
When researchers asked people to describe personal experiences of awe, they often included depictions of nature that included water--sunsets by the beach or swimming in the ocean. When reminded of the awe-inspired experience, people are more ethical. In an experiment, people were more likely to return extra change handed to them by a cashier if the event followed having just described their awe-inspiring memory to researchers.
Water in representational forms also is powerful. In one study, patients with cancer suffering from chronic pain were shown a nature video that included fifteen minutes of the sounds of ocean waves, waterfalls, and splashing creeks. The patients experiences a 20 - 30% drop in the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. In another study, teenagers at a dentist office exposed to the sound of waterfalls experienced a reduction in anxiety.
This preference for aquatic environments can be explained by the critical role they assumed in human evolutionary history. Fresh water has been essential for human survival and salt water is a source of food and a means of migration. Being drawn to water locales was optimally adaptive for our ancestors, and the legacy echoes within the human brain.
These reason explain why protecting water resources is important for the survival of the human race--not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Connections to water are important for individuals and the human community.
So, don't consider it strange if your physician hands you a prescription to take two waves, a beach walk, and a flowing river--and then call in the morning.
Tips for water therapy outside of a natural aquatic environment:
- Fill the tub and add some bath salts. Light a candle and turn on the sounds of the oceans. Immerse yourself under the water with only your nose exposed.
- Take in the small bodies of water around you: fountains, ponds, pools, and streams.
- Capture the image of the ocean in images or words. Refer to these to inspire you.