In the opening paragraph of Moby Dick, Ishmael, the narrator, explains how the ocean affects his mind and soul:
Looking out “over the watery part of the world,” says Ishmael, “is a way for me to dispel melancholy and regulate blood circulation. Whenever I find myself getting dull around the mouth, when my soul feels like a drizzly November morning, when I unconsciously stop in front of an undertaker’s shop window (…) I know it’s time to get to sea as soon as possible .’
Author of the famous book, Herman Melville, knew instinctively that the sea lifts the mood and that the ocean is somehow able to heal us. 165 years later, marine biologist Callum Roberts repeats Melville’s words:
‘We humans have a deep bond with the sea. The sea inspires, enraptures and comforts us (…) Our relationship with the sea goes way back in time (…) all the way to the origin of life itself. We are creatures of the ocean.’
Happier (walking) by the sea
It took five years for researchers to piece together data to “prove” what so many of us have known for a long time. In 2019, one of the most detailed studies ever into the wellbeing effects of a stay by the sea was published. Based on data from nearly 26,000 people, the researchers concluded that those who live within 20 kilometers of the English coast are happier and have better mental health than those inland. The results apply in particular to households with the lowest incomes.
This is not the only study showing that the words of Melville’s Ishmael (in 1851) indicate something that is still of universal value today. A New Zealand study claims that the more often people look at the sea, the more relaxed, calm and vital they feel. In terms of positive effects on mood and well-being, the sea surpasses everything, including green landscapes and trees. A 2016 study from the University of Exeter shows that people living near the coast are ‘generally healthier and happier than those inland’, a finding that matches the results of a survey of older people in Ireland showing that those with a sea view are less likely to suffer from depression.
These theories and studies support the healthy effects of walking by the sea:
1. Natural recovery
Why does the sea make us feel so good? According to Professor Douglas Kenrick, constant overstimulation and mental turmoil cause our brains to continuously run ‘in high gear’, which is accompanied by a debilitating stress level. Our brains need time to recover. They must be able to relax and refuel. Or, in Kenrick’s words, to undergo a period of ‘natural recovery’.
This happens most effectively in an environment that we find somewhat interesting and that is fairly new to us, but also has a high level of predictability, keeping us engaged and relaxed at the same time. A kind of regularity that is not monotony, familiarity without boredom, similar to the river walk. The sea may well be the epitome of regularity without monotony: unchanging in essence and at the same time enchanting with its foaming waves, diving seabirds and scattered light.
2. Powerful Mood Altering Effect
Others think the ebb and flow of the sea may have something to do with its powerful mood-altering effect: its constant pattern of movement is said to encourage our minds to step out of the maelstrom of our own thoughts.
3. Ancient memories
According to the biophilia hypothesis, we automatically relax when we are close to water and food sources, as if our brains contained ancient molecular memories of starvation and dehydration.
Some researchers believe that the omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish and shellfish played an essential role in human brain development and that we inherit that knowledge instinctively, making us feel again and again attracted to a marine environment, as if realizing that the sea is both our home and a source of essential nutrition.
5. Seawater bacteria
And then there’s the theory that seawater contains bacteria that boost our immunity, causing us to feel unconsciously physiologically attracted to the sea when we want to replenish our microbiome.
6. Calming environment
Scientists have also investigated specific features of the sea. According to them, the sounds of the surf and breaking waves are very soothing, the reflections stimulate our brains and the fractal patterns of shells and waves calm our tired brain.
Walking by the sea is ‘just’ good
But do we need the latest scientific insights to tempt us to take a walk along the coast? Sea spas were already very popular in the nineteenth century, millions of people spend their summer holidays by the sea, literature is almost drowning in stories about the ocean and the sea, and more than a third of the world’s population chooses a life on the coast. Science only confirms our often irresistible physiological longing for the sea, which every now and then reminds us that it’s time for a beach or coastal walk again.
How often do we have to go to sea? If we take a moment twice a week, or once for at least two hours, we have the best chance of good general and mental health, according to environmental psychologist Lewis Elliot.
Tips for walking by the sea
- Coastal trails tend to be less crowded on rainy days and in the winter months.
- According to the British Bird Protection Agency, the best time to watch seabirds is between April and June.
- May through August is the ideal time to collect samphire and many types of seaweed.
- Sea-walking can be done all year round. Choose a safe stretch of coast where the water is calm.
- Can’t go to the coast? Then follow a river, this is an excellent alternative.
Have fun and good luck on your walk!