Take a minute, close your eyes, and picture the ocean. Immerse yourself in that imagery: Hear the sounds of rolling waves, feel the warmth of the sun or the touch of an ocean breeze on your skin. Maybe you can even taste a bit of the salt-soaked air. Picturing this scene, how do you feel? Tranquil? More relaxed? Happy? Turns out this isn’t just anecdotal: There’s actual science to explain why looking at the sea makes you happier. Or more specifically, living by the sea.
Why Looking At The Sea Makes You Happier And More Relaxed
For a long time in movies and television, the ocean has been associated with scenes of tranquility, meditation, reflection, and relaxation. The beach is almost always depicted as a place that is happy, joyful, and carefree. Looking at the sea and being at the beach tend to elicit the same response in real life.
Experts do say that there is a bit of a placebo effect at play here (which is still an effect). We have been conditioned through these depictions to think of the beach as this care-free place. We also typically go to the beach to relax and have fun, so it is associated with less work and more play. All of this said, humans wouldn’t have started using the ocean for this purpose in the first place if there wasn’t some solid reason behind it. (1)
“Research has shown that being near, in, on or under water can provide a long list of benefits for our mind and body, including lowering stress and anxiety, increasing an overall sense of well-being and happiness, a lower heart and breathing rate, and safe, better workouts,” says marine biologist Wallace Nicols, author of Blue Mind. “We’ve found that being near water boosts creativity, can enhance the quality of conversations and provides a backdrop to important parts of living — like play, romance and grieving.” (2)
Several studies have been done on this phenomenon, and the research is in: There are actual scientific and biological reasons why the beach makes us feel better. These reasons stimulate nearly all of our senses. (1)
The Color Blue
The first of these is sight. Scientists have studied the various emotional responses that different colors produce, and blue nearly always promotes calmness and peace. Water, which appears blue to the human eye, helps reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. (3)
“Staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state,” says clinical psychologist Richard Shuster. (3)
The Sound Of The Waves
The sound of waves crashing or rolling onto the shore also produces a relaxation response in our brains. It stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which slows us down, relaxes us, and helps us to feel more aware and engaged with our surroundings. The gentle repetitive sound lulls us into a meditative state. (3)
“These slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people,” says biobehavioral health professor Orfeu Buxton. “It’s like they’re saying: “Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.” (3)
The smell (and also the taste) of that salty ocean air has a restorative effect. This is because ocean air contains negative ions, which actually work to calm your busy, loud, stressed-out brain. These ions are so powerful that they can actually help to relieve the depressive symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. (2)
The Feeling of Warm Sand Between Your Toes
Our sense of touch definitely comes into play here. The physical sensation of putting our feet into warm sand relaxes our minds and our bodies. This is because our feet contain an incredible amount of nerve endings and acupuncture points – aka, they are very sensitive. Our feet can also absorb free ions from the sand, similar to how our lungs do from the air. (2, 3)
The Proof Is In The People Who Live There
It’s quite clear that looking at the sea has a positive effect on our brains and moods – just ask the people who live there. Studies show that the closer people are to the sea, the happier they are. This is one reason why places like Hawaii constantly rank near the top of the happiest places in the world. A study done by The University of Exeter in the UK found that in England, people who live within a kilometer of the ocean were less likely to have mental health disorders than those who lived 50km or more from the coast. (4)
Being close to the “blue” doesn’t actually have to be the ocean, either: Rivers, lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water also are beneficial. Of course, there are some confounding factors to this, but it can’t be denied that being by the water is good for the soul. (4)
The Health Benefits Of Joy
If being by or looking at the sea brings you joy, then this one is for you. There’s no doubt that when you feel happy, your whole body feels better – and there’s a science to back this up, too. Happy people are healthier. Feeling joyful (5):
- Makes your immune system stronger
- Decreases stress and pain
- Supports longevity
- Promotes a healthier lifestyle
Joy actually impacts many of the major systems of our bodies: Our brains, circulatory, and nervous systems. This means that happiness promotes digestion and metabolism and releases chemicals into our bodies that make our bodies work better. (5)
If you don’t live near the coast, don’t sweat it: You can promote joy and relaxation in other ways. Spending time with loved ones, a walk-in nature, petting a dog, or even simply smiling (even if you don’t necessarily feel like it) can promote a similar response. You can also try surrounding yourself with some blue pillows and blankets, turning on ocean sounds, and take five to 10 minutes a day to meditate and calm your mind – at least until the next time, you can escape to the sea. (5) After all humans have thrived in many places around the world. Find your joy. Whatever it is.
- “What the beach does to your brain.” NBC News. Christina Heiser. July 29, 2017.
- “‘Blue Mind’: Why being near the water makes you happy.” USA Today. Marla Cimini. November 13, 2017.
- “How the Beach Benefits Your Brain, According to Science.” INC. Anne Gherini.
- “People who live on the coast are typically happier than those who don’t.” Market Watch. Nicole Lyn Pesce. October 1, 2019.
- “This Is How Joy Affects Your Body.” Healthline. Carrie Murphy. August 22, 2018