A few years ago, I sat with Jack O’Neill on a weathered deck overlooking Pleasure Point, Santa Cruz. O’Neill was under a blanket and had just woken up from a nap, looking—with amber beard and eye patch—like surfing’s desert father. At the time, he was 89 (he’s now 92), and despite a recent stroke he was full of mischievous energy.
We were talking about the ocean’s mesmerizing effect on people when, mid-sentence, he grabbed my arm with a pipe-fitter’s grip and said, “You oughta quit wasting your time here and just go talk to J. Nichols.” He gave me a steady glance out of the corner of his eye that turned suggestion into command.
I did, eventually, and was thus thrust into the world of “Blue Mind,” a term coined by biologist Wallace J. Nichols for the special neurological state the brain enters when we’re around water—what he describes as a “mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction.” It is also the name of the book he recently published that made a run on The New York Times bestseller list.
That the ocean can make us happy might seem like a no-shit observation to the everyday surfer, but Nichols’ exploration of neuroscience starts to splinter off into some pretty heady avenues of investigation, like how surfing can lead to long-term happiness, how Blue Mind can help us catch more waves, and why surfing will make us more productive, more creative, and improve mental health. No wonder O’Neill was so insistent.