Image: Coast | By Shifaaz Shamoon
Blue Spaces: Why Time Spent Near Water is the Secret of Happiness
Three Established Pathways
Although living within 1km (0.6 miles) of the coast – and to a lesser extent, within 5km (3.1 miles) – has been associated with better general and mental health, it seems to be the propensity to visit that is key. “We find people who visit the coast, for example, at least twice weekly tend to experience better general and mental health,” says Dr Lewis Elliott, also of the University of Exeter and BlueHealth. “Some of our research suggests around two hours a week is probably beneficial, across many sectors of society.” Even sea views have been associated with better mental health.
White says there are three established pathways by which the presence of water is positively related to health, wellbeing and happiness. First, there are the beneficial environmental factors typical of aquatic environments, such as less polluted air and more sunlight. Second, people who live by water tend to be more physically active – not just with water sports, but walking and cycling. Third – and this is where blue space seems to have an edge over other natural environments – water has a psychologically restorative effect. White says spending time in and around aquatic environments has consistently been shown to lead to significantly higher benefits, in inducing positive mood and reducing negative mood and stress, than green space does.
Image: Family | Jan Kopriva
“People work with what they have,” says Kelly. When she lived in London, she would head for the Thames when she had a spare 10 minutes “and recalibrate”. Then, four times a year, she would go to Brighton “and the benefits would keep me going for the next few months – so I didn’t get into a place of being overwhelmed or stressed, just keeping myself topped up”.
The coast does seem to be especially effective, however. White suggests this is due to the ebb and flow of the tides. He points out that rumination – focusing on negative thoughts about one’s distress – is an established factor in depression. “What we find is that spending time walking on the beach, there’s a transition towards thinking outwards towards the environment, thinking about those patterns – putting your life in perspective, if you like.”
When you are sailing, surfing or swimming, says White, “you’re really in tune with natural forces there – you have to understand the motion of the wind, the movement of the water”. By being forced to concentrate on the qualities of the environment, we access a cognitive state honed over millennia. “We’re kind of getting back in touch with our historical heritage, cognitively.” Water is, quite literally, immersive.
As well as an academic, Kelly is a wellness practitioner who teaches classes in “mindfulness by the sea”. She says the sea has a meditative quality – whether it is crashing or still, or you are in the water or observing from the shore. “You can immerse yourself in it, which you can’t really do with a green space. You’re present in that moment, you’re looking at something with intention, and whether that’s for two minutes or half an hour, it gives you the benefits in that moment.”
In the future, she believes time in blue space will be a mainstream, formalised response. “The mental health crisis isn’t going anywhere,” she says.
Image: Two People | By Ines Alvarez Fdez
Rees says support for the idea of “blue” or “green” prescriptions for individuals is growing. A “surfing for mental health” group in north Devon is one example she gives of how “nature-based interventions” can work.
By working to characterise and quantify benefits, BlueHealth’s cross-disciplinary team hopes to establish how “blue infrastructure” – the coast, rivers, inland lakes – can help tackle major public health challenges such as obesity, physical inactivity and mental health disorders. A 2016 paper – which White co-authored – put the monetary value of the health benefit of engaging with the marine environment at £176m.
Harnessing the power of blue space could also potentially help to alleviate inequality. “One of our recent papers finds that the benefits of coastal living are strongest for people living in the poorest areas,” says Elliott. For that reason, it is crucial to ensure everyone has access. With proximity to water associated with at least a 10% premium in house prices, White is concerned by the exclusivity of seaside urban development. “What will happen is you’ll get this kind of gentrification, where the people who benefit most will get squeezed inland.”