Blue spaces: Time spending near water secret of happiness
Coastal environments have been shown to improve our health, body and mind. So should doctors start issuing nature-based prescriptions? In recent years, stressed-out urbanites have been seeking refuge in green spaces, for which the proven positive impacts on physical and mental health are often cited in arguments for more inner-city parks and accessible woodlands.
The benefits of "blue space" - the sea and coastline, but also rivers, lakes, canals, waterfalls, even fountains - are less well publicised, yet the science has been consistent for at least a decade: being by water is good for body and mind, reports Independent.
Proximity to water - especially the sea - is associated with many positive measures of physical and mental wellbeing, from higher levels of vitamin D to better social relations. "Many of the processes are exactly the same as with green space - with some added benefits," says Dr Mathew White, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and an environmental psychologist with BlueHealth, a programme researching the health and wellbeing benefits of blue space across 18 (mostly European) countries.
An extensive 2018 study on happiness in natural environments - to White's mind, "one of the best ever" - prompted 20,000 smartphone users to record their sense of wellbeing and their immediate environment at random intervals. Marine and coastal margins were found by some distance to be the happiest locations, with responses approximately six points higher than in a continuous urban environment.
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.
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.
People of all socioeconomic groups go to the coast to spend quality time with friends and family. Dr Sian Rees, a marine scientist at the University of Plymouth, says the coastline is Britain's "most socially levelling environment", whereas forests tend to be accessed by high-income earners. "It's not seen as being elite or a special place, it's where we just go and have fun.
Even a fountain may do. A 2017 study (of which White was lead author) found that images of built environments containing water were generally rated just as positively as those of only green space; researchers suggested that the associated soundscape and the quality of light on water might be enough to have a restorative effect.
Although participants rated large bodies of water higher than other aquatic environments (and "swampy areas" were rated significantly less positively), the study suggested that any water is better than none - presenting opportunities for beneficial blue space to be designed or retrofitted. "You can't change where the coast is, but when we're talking about translating the benefits to other types of environments, there is nothing to stop a well-designed urban fountain," says Elliott.
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."