Finding Your Place in Nature
February is the month of Love. We pay more attention to Valentine’s Day with flowers and chocolates and special attention to our loved ones. It’s a lovely time. Practicing this tradition every month of the year would be a beautiful way to make the world a loving place.
With the one year anniversary to the lockdowns coming up, I realize that for the last year, I have been sharing my advice to you to keep stress levels low, get out in the sun and keep your immune system strong. I practiced all my own advice diligently and felt healthy and well.
January 2021 came and I was looking forward to a New Year. It didn’t happen. That’s when it finally got to me. I spent the year working on keeping my health strong and my mood stable… and it worked for almost a year. But recently I have experienced the loneliness and isolation that can creep in. It’s not a feeling I like. I am stubborn and determined not to let it get to me. And as luck may have it, I had saved a wonderful article about “Living by the Sea” that I want to share.
"Blue Space" by Catherine Kelly
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.
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 program researching the health and wellbeing benefits of blue space across 18 (mostly European) countries.
An extensive 2013 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. The researchers equated it to “the difference between attending an exhibition and doing housework”.
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.
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.
“By spending time in these environments, you’re getting what we call ‘health by stealth’ – enjoying the outdoors, interacting with the physical environment – and that also has some different health benefits.”
Even a fountain may do. A 2010 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.
“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.
Wherever you live, find that place in nature that can keep you calm and have that restorative effect on your life. Whether it is “blue” or “green," nature is there for us to enjoy and refresh.
I hope this helps with you keeping your mood balanced and happiness fills your days!
If you need any help with health issues, please contact me and I will happily discuss solutions with you.
Stay Healthy, Safe, & Positive,