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‘Blue Mind’: Why Being Near the Water Makes You Happy

Originally published in USA Today

A day at the beach brings joy to visitors of all ages. Those who love to vacation by oceans, lakes and even swimming pools can attest to the water’s power to inspire relaxation and promote personal rejuvenation. And it’s no wonder that so many hotels and resorts are situated on the water, as travelers often pay a premium for shimmering views.

The bestselling book, Blue Mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or underwater can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do, by marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, focuses on the proven scientific evidence that being close to bodies of water promotes mental health and happiness.

As an avid traveler as well as scientist, Nichols realized at an early age that the ocean inspired a sense of peacefulness within. From playing in the waves at the New Jersey shore as a child to his later SCUBA diving explorations, he understood that enjoying the water was more than a fun pastime — it was a natural way to rest and recharge.

I caught up with Nichols at the Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas, where he launched a Blue Mind partner program. He explained why he and other scientists agree that the healing power of water is beneficial to emotional health and physical well-being, and why you should travel to achieve your own “blue mind.”

Q: What inspired you to write your book, Blue Mind?

A: Honestly, I wanted to read a book about water’s positive effects on the human body and mind, but couldn’t find anything that had been published — because it hadn’t been written. Then I tried to convince some colleagues who were neuroscientists and psychologists to write it, and gave them my research — but they would not write it. My third choice was to write it myself — and it took me about five years.

Q: What’s the concept of “Blue Mind” ?

A: The term “blue mind” describes the mildly meditative state we fall into when near, in, on or under water. It’s the antidote to what we refer to as “red mind,” which is the anxious, over-connected and over-stimulated state that defines the new normal of modern life. Research has proven that spending time near the water is essential to achieving an elevated and sustained happiness.

I like to ask people I meet, “What’s your water?” This essentially means, “What’s the first water you think of and what’s the water you dream about and long for? What does it feel like, smell like and look like?” These questions make people contemplate their relationship with water.

Q: Why is it so important to vacation by the water?

A: 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. Aquatic therapists are increasingly looking to the water to help treat and manage PTSD, addiction, anxiety disorders, autism and more. 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. All of this depends on these waters being safe, clean and healthy, of course.

In experiments, images depicting water triggered a more positive response than those without water. Flip through any travel magazine and you’ll see that editors and advertisers understand this very well.

This “blue mind” response to water is best understood from the long view. Our ancestors were on the move — and finding water was a matter of life or death. That all of our senses respond positively to water is highly adaptive … However, there’s really no downside to indulging our love of water — completely and often!

Q: How do you hope the “blue mind” concept will influence others?

A: My global vision is that the “blue mind” concept will influence and change the way all resorts, spas, surf camps and even hospitals do their work. Of course, how this translates to different businesses will all be different. I just want it to be common knowledge that sitting by the water quietly is really good for you. And I want parents and teachers to teach our young people that … and tell them if you are having a bad day, get to the water and you will feel much better.

Blue mind is not achieved while you are on Instagram … ever. It’s impossible. One of the requirements is logging out, turning off and putting the screens away. When you do that, you are beginning to quiet your mind and move into a different mode. As you make your journey towards the water, you go deeper into your blue mind. There’s a time and place to bring your phone in the waterproof case and shoot video … and there’s a time to turn it all off.  

Q: Since you travel extensively, which destinations have you discovered to be best for achieving a “blue mind?”

A: Most of us have access to water, lakes or oceans in some form — and we underutilize their potential. Whether it’s a deeply relaxing vacation or a weekend getaway, water is the best way to reset. There are many locations that you can go to experience a blue mind — you don’t necessarily need to be near the ocean. If you look at a map of the U.S. or world, there is blue everywhere — rivers, lakes, ponds — and not to mention pools and what we call “domesticated water.” You don’t have to go far. “Blue mind” is not an exclusively ocean-only conversation, it’s a water conversation, and there are incredibly amazing waterways everywhere — around the world.

Q: You also promote eco-friendly travels. What trends are you seeing in the travel world today?

A: I think the next generation of travelers and spa goers will be seeking more creative sustainability on several levels. There is a definite shift that’s happening. A prime example is the 1 Hotel. I recently stayed at their South Beach, Fla., location and it features eco-friendly, nature-oriented design themes and programming. It’s very nicely done and they are going beyond the norm … even the hangers in the rooms are made from recycled cardboard maps.

Hotels need to be serving the greater good. When you stay at an authentically sustainable property, you feel good about yourself and feel that you made some kind of impact.

Q: You use the term “slow coast,” to identify the quiet California coastline between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. Why is this area special?

A: The “slow coast” is over the hill from Silicon Valley — it’s where I live with my family in Davenport, Calif. It’s mellow, undeveloped and the opposite of a fast-paced lifestyle. There are organic farms, great beaches, wineries and fun surfing. You can go out to the beach and be alone for miles. Increasingly, my wife and I like having stay-cations with the family. It’s become such a luxury when the kids are out of school and we have no deadlines or work travel.

Q: As co-author of the book, The Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles, you have been raising awareness about protecting them. What’s happening with sea turtles now?  

A: Super exciting news! Around the globe, sea turtles are making a comeback … and I think it has a lot to do with our emotional connection and some of the unstoppable and tenacious ocean warriors I’ve been working with along the way! We are about to reach our millionth baby sea turtle goal through our conservation organization SEE Turtles and its “Billion Baby Turtles” project that was launched recently. Also, our efforts to restore the black sea turtle have been successful, a sign of real-world success.



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