Want to Boost Your Mental Health? Head For the Sea, Not the Mountains

Many people feel a profound connection to water, whether it's oceans, rivers, or lakes. Now, science might have found an explanation.  

In cities all over the world the importance of green spaces are being recognized and taken advantage of. The advantages of parks are many, and include better social connections, more chances for recreational activities, and the chance of a brief escape from the concrete jungle. Some green spaces, like New York’s Central Park, are famous for the scope of their reprieve from the stresses of the modern world.


But, it seems blue is the new green.

In a recent study by Nutsford et al, a better way of reducing stress in urban populations is proposed, and found, in blue spaces. For the purposes of the study, blue spaces included watery places such as lakes, oceans, and rivers; but did not include manmade structures such as fountains.

Using national databases to determine the prevalence of green and blue space around the city of Wellington, New Zealand, the scientists were able to determine how visible each space was using a variety of methods including the location, how busy the area is, and even the topography of the region, taking things such as being stuck in a tall building surrounded by other ones as a limiting factor to how much green you can see.

The data on the visibility of blue and green spaces was then compared to answers given on the New Zealand Health Survey, which included data not only on psychological distress, but also on the socio-economic status of the population. These studies, of health and the visibility of blue and green spaces, were then compared. The results were clear: more blue lead to less stress.

Oddly, the tests showed no relation between the visibility of green space and lowered stress. This was suggested to be related to the vast amount of green space New Zealanders get to enjoy regularly. While the authors note that other studies have pointed towards the notion of blue space reducing stress, they could not rule out the notion that “blue space” was perhaps merely a better indicator of true escape from societal stress than green space. 

But wait! What if this is just an odd random thing?

To help show that this association was not random, the researchers found an interesting statistic to compare with blue spaces alongside the psychological distress one. The rate of tooth loss, a supposedly unrelated statistic. The idea being that tooth loss is associated with income and other social factors and is not thought to be associated with blue space. If there is no relation between the two, then it would suggest that the previous findings were not tied to socio-economic findings. As expected, there was no strong relationship between visibility of blue space and tooth loss, helping to validate the findings.

So, while the researchers stress the need for further study, their findings show “an association between increased blue space and reduced psychological stress,” even when accounting for other factors. This is a fantastic finding, as any way of reducing stress in our increasingly fast-paced and often psychologically ill world is needed.

Such news would not have shocked Einstein, who loved the sea and sailing on it all his life. Late in life, when he was a professor at Princeton, he was known to be a holy terror in his boat, and was known to capsize often. For Einstein, blue space was a needed retreat from stress, even if it meant undoing some of his reputation as a genius for needing to be constantly rescued. Perhaps the challenge is what he liked—his persistence is legendary, after all.  

So is blue nature the new green? Maybe not for the residents of drier climes but in places where it is feasible, increased visibility of blue spaces might be a great benefit—or what you could also infer from the study is to try to expose yourself to a different landscape than the one you're used to, as is the case of the New Zealanders with all their lush overload of greenery. While there is more to learn about this phenomenon, I for one am going to take a break and visit the lotus pound now. 

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