There's good reason visions of a relaxing vacation often include the ocean. And why many people fantasize about retiring to the coast. There's a sense of calm and wonder that comes from being by the water.
While the tourism industry and Florida snowbirds have known this forever, there's now research to confirm that living near water may actually improve mental health.
Using Wellington, New Zealand, the urban capital, as its case study, researchers from Michigan State University evaluated residents who lived in neighborhoods with views of either blue or green spaces. Coastal residents saw the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean while inland residents were near forests or parks.
Those who lived near the water reported less psychological distress.
Many other research studies have looked at the correlation between health and coastal living and have found an uptick in mental health among people who live by the water. But Michigan State says it's the first to show an affirmative link between the two based on visibility of water from a person's home.
The original intent of the research was to determine the effect of nature on anxiety and depression, particularly in urban areas where there's less natural beauty. It is well-established that having bodies of water or swaths of green space promotes physical and social activity, and that being near nature has a known stress-reducing effect.
"Green and blue spaces are recognized as therapeutic or salutogenic places and may lower psychological distress by serving as calming backdrops in residential neighborhoods," the authors wrote.
Using data from the New Zealand Health Survey, researchers were able to compare mental health statistics to where people live.
What they found is that there was no significant benefit for people living near green areas, but there was for people who lived by the water. Even when they broke down demographics by age, sex and personal income, there was still an improvement in mental health among people closer to the ocean.
This bears out in U.S. studies of mental health as well. Hawaii is ranked the No. 1 happiest and healthiest state in America, according to the annual Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
There are, of course, notable limitations to such a study, which the authors detail at length in their paper. For one, they note that the blue spaces in Wellington are a better representation of natural beauty than the city's green ones, which are mostly parks and sports fields. Moreover, would the same results be true of other bodies of water that aren't oceans?
"If the type of water is irrelevant, similar findings could potentially be evaluated on large fresh water bodies, such as the North American Great Lakes," the authors wrote. "If the type of water is salient, this may relate not only to the visibility of the ocean, but the other sensory stimuli related to the ocean, including the sound of waves and the smell of air passing over the ocean."
Still, the researchers argue that such findings could help identify some tangible ways to help treat mental illness. In April, the World Bank and the World Health Organization held a meeting about how to create a global agenda for mental health, calling it a critical issue on par with where HIV/AIDS was 20 years ago. They're prepared to make significant investments.
The authors of the study suggest that, if it's true that blue spaces promote greater psychological well-being, then communities could, for example, invest in more affordable housing near water.
Or, if living with views of the water is not an option, may we suggest beach vacations covered by health insurance?