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President John F. Kennedy spoke at the 1962 America’s Cup race in Newport, Rhode Island, where he said, “We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came”.
What did he mean, that we’re “tied to the ocean”? And when we hop in the car and head to the beach, we’re “going back from whence we came”?
I’ve never lived more than 20 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, and I do find myself drawn to the beach no matter what season. I know that every May like clockwork, cars pour off every highway leading into our area and the local population doubles for the next few months.
Maybe I take living near the beach for granted. But I’ve often wondered, what makes thousands of people sit in their car, sometimes for several hours, to spend a few days sitting on the beach.
You can lay in your backyard and get a tan, and if you don’t have your own pool your neighbor probably has one. What’s the impetus that drives someone to pack their family in the car and sit in traffic in order to spend time sitting on the beach?
In 2010, 123.3 million people, or 39 percent of the United States population lived in counties directly on the shoreline. This population was expected to increase by 8% from 2010 to 2020. So even with the risk of hurricanes and floods people are still drawn to be near the ocean.
Does the Ocean Have Healing Effects?
It’s fun kicking off your shoes and relaxing for a few hours, but does the beach actually have some underlying health benefits for our mind and body?
It seems that way, because as early as the eighteenth century, doctors prescribed trips to the shore, to what were known as “bathing hospitals” where patients received salt-water treatments.
I sat next to an older man on a flight to Jamaica once. He was flying back to his home outside of Montego Bay. I was at the time, trying to get over a nagging sinus infection, still dealing with the stuffiness and headache.
He suggested to me that at the first opportunity, I should get into the salt water, and spend as much time as possible in it – that it had “healing powers”. As we walked off the plane and said our goodbyes, he said once more with a smile, “Don’t forget mon, get into the sea”.
Spending time in the water was my plan, but sure enough, after 3 or 4 days of snorkeling, I had all my senses back. I could taste the Red Stripe beer, smell the straw of the hat woven for me, and breathe deeply while jogging on the beach. “No problem, Mon!”
We Have a Blue Mind
Usually, when we think about a stimulus to our senses it’s associated with fear, anticipation or nervousness. Being at the beach is unique because it heightens your senses but at the same time evokes a sense of calm.
The color blue is generally acknowledged to be most favored by people around the world. Blue is usually associated with qualities like calm, openness and depth.
Wallace Nichols, a marine biologist, wrote a great book about our connection to the ocean, called Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.
He explains why our minds and bodies seem to be more relaxed at the beach.
“We have a ‘blue mind’ — and it’s perfectly tailored to make us happy in all sorts of ways that go way beyond relaxing in the surf, listening to the murmur of a stream, or floating quietly in a pool.”
He goes on to say, “the blue mind is a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment — that’s triggered when we’re in or near water.”
Nichols’ theory is that our brains are hard-wired to react positively to water. And when we’re near the ocean we feel a sense of calm, connection, innovation and insight, and even healing.
The ocean’s healing properties were also on the mind of the occupational therapist, Carly Rogers in San Diego. Carly founded the Jimmy Miller Foundation after the well-known surfer passed away in 2004.
Jimmy had surfed since age 7, worked as a lifeguard and then a surfing teacher through his own company, Pure Surfing Experience. He epitomized the philosophy of a genuine, soulful love of the ocean and the waves that he shared with everyone. His unbridled enthusiasm and fun teaching style resonated with students throughout the area. The core of his philosophy and mission was the belief that enjoying the ocean can benefit all of us, physically and mentally.
So, after Jimmy’s death, Carly Rogers’ idea of the foundation would be to use surfing as occupational therapy for Wounded Warriors suffering from PTSD.
The program is built around Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow theory.” His theory asserts that once someone gets “in the zone,” a positive, focused state of being for an activity, he or she can feel fulfilled and happy.
Surfing enables someone to divert their focus, even temporarily, from their immediate troubles and get into a zone. So, the idea behind the program is that when someone can learn to relax and get in their zone, this feeling can flow into other areas of their life.
The program has been so successful that they now conduct year-round sessions on base at Camp Pendleton. And the foundation has branched out to offer 1:1 sessions for children who’ve faced challenges in their lives, such as physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse.
What About Just Hanging at the Beach?
So, the salt water and the physical activity of surfing seem to have physical and emotional benefits, but what about just “being” at the beach? Is there any evidence that just spending time at the beach is beneficial for our mind and body?
What draws us to want to spread a blanket out, close our eyes and just listen to the waves?
Wallace Nichols also wrote in Blue Mind, “There are all these cognitive and emotional benefits that we derive every time we spend time by water, in water or under water.”
He theorizes that the meditative state he refers to as our blue mind is based in chemistry, biology, and physiology. “It’s deeply personal but it’s also strong science,” Nichols said.
Brain imaging tests actually show that being near water does flood the brain with feel-good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin and that levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop.
So, it isn’t our imagination. That hour you’ve spent building a sand castle or just soaking in the sun is rejuvenating your mind and body.
Negative Ions Can Create Positive Feelings
You know the feeling you get standing in the crashing surf, or next to a waterfall, or just after a spring storm? Your senses are heightened but your mood is calmed.
The air at the beach contains tens of thousands of negative ions. Many times more than around your home or office. These are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules that we inhale in certain environments.
Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase our levels of serotonin. And serotonin helps to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy.
Ah, so now I know why as a kid, my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches always tasted better at the beach.
Predictability vs Unpredictability
When you leave your world behind and spend time at the beach, whether walking, surfing or just relaxing in your chair, there’s something comforting and stabilizing about the tides and the waves. Back at home the saying “the only thing constant, is change” can make for an unnerving and unpredictable existence.
But when you return to the beach, whether in June or February, you can close your eyes and hear the same rhythmic pounding of the waves, the squawk of the seagulls and smell the same salt air. The exact spot where you stand in the sand, with the waves lapping at your feet has been unchanged for centuries, and likely will remain unchanged for centuries more.
Even as time spent at the beach can be soothing and relaxing in its predictability, spending time in and around the ocean reminds us what a small part we play in the universe. The moon, the tides and wind patterns can combine to make the ocean calm and serene, or bone crushing and unforgiving.
Ever stand on the beach, at peace while the sun rises, or during a hurricane in awe of the power of nature?
You can stand on the shore of a lake in the middle of the country, and possibly not be able to see the other side. But there aren’t creatures the size of a house living in it. There aren’t ships on the horizon that have sailed from half way around the world, and wrecks with buried treasure, untouched for centuries.
You’re safe standing on the lake shore, and chances are if you sailed to the other side you’d be safe there too, most likely still within the borders of our country. But venture upon the ocean at your own risk. Leave the safety of our shores and encounter unpredictability, mystery, and chance.
The beach provides that juxtaposition of states of being. To sit on the sand and watch the waves, relaxed and rejuvenated, and spend time in an ocean more powerful than anything on earth, we’re soothed and awed simultaneously. It’s no wonder the beach inspires so much creativity.
So, the next time you find yourself drawn to the beach, whether it’s a family vacation or just a leisurely hour of shell shopping, know that generations before you have felt that same pull.
You’ve sprinted through weeks of to-do lists, and collapsed into bed exhausted mentally and physically. You’ve spent weeks in air conditioned, carpeted enclosures with droning TV’s, telephones and customers.
But now as you sink your feet into the sand you can take one long exhale. The majesty of the ocean demands your attention like nothing on land. As you soak in the sun, the air, the smells and the sounds, your senses remind you of your connection to nature – and by the time you leave you’re recharged with clarity and perspective.
When John F. Kennedy said, “we are tied to the ocean”, I think he was referring to that inert pull of the ocean and the beach that draws us for reasons we may not even realize. I do know that I’ll always have sand in my truck and in my house. I’m Ok with that.
What about you? Do you live near the ocean, or if not, do you make a point to get there once in a while? Do you feel better when you leave?