What’s up with the laid-back beach bum stereotype? It certainly makes sense on the surface that enjoying a regular routine of digging your toes into the sand, enjoying the sun, and even splashing around in some saltwater while getting a nice tan would make life feel pretty swell. All these things certainly fit right into the “no bad days” portrait we paint of living by the ocean. After all, it could just be a placebo effect, right? Now if only we could understand exactly why this happens…
According to clinical psychologist and podcast host Richard Shuster, PsyD, there are many factors at play here.
“The color blue has been found by an overwhelming amount of people to be associated with feelings of calm and peace,” he says. “Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state.”
Mix that with the actual sounds of the beach and ocean — a light onshore breeze and waves crashing onto sand before rushing back out to sea — and your brain actually starts to naturally slip into a more relaxed state by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now add on the fact that you’re likely engaging in one form of a practice known as “grounding” or “earthing.” Earthing is simply walking barefoot on a natural surface: grass, sand, dirt, you name it. Your feet weren’t made to be covered by shoes, disconnected from the ground, which means we have grown accustomed to having separated from the earth itself. For most of the history of mankind, this was actually the opposite as we didn’t walk with shoes. The human race naturally maintained a constant physical connection with the earth’s electrical field. Scientific research has proven that this contact with the ground allows a normal exchange of electrons, neutralizing free radicals and aiding in the prevention of diseases and illnesses. When it comes to depression, this disconnect can be a factor in impacting our mood.
Research does support the idea that being by the ocean consistently has a link to happiness. Whether it’s been studied in the UK or in the United States, living by the beach or even more specifically, having a view of the ocean from your home, correlates to reporting better physical and mental health than those who don’t. And marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols even took a deep dive into how physically connecting with water leads to happier and healthier in his book Blue Mind. Nichols says “we relax, and the quality of our thought changes,” when we come into contact with water. “A different brain network activates. That brain network is available for a completely different kind of quality of thought which is much more introspective and self-referential. Oftentimes it leads to feelings of connectedness and that can lead to innovative thoughts.”
He even went so far as to link settlers intuitively finding comfort around bodies of water. “Early humans seeking a place to call home and seeing a place overlooking the ocean or river realized that it makes them happy. They said, ‘This is good, this is right, this is safe and the place to survive and thrive.’”
So the ocean or a pool may not be a cure-all for depression. But science certainly supports the idea that it definitely won’t hurt.