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It is known that regular contact with green spaces has a beneficial effect on health. These natural spaces can help reduce air pollution, limit extreme temperatures, and promote physical activity. They are also associated with improved mental health. But a growing body of research suggests that blue spaces, which represent areas near water, would be even more useful.
People living in green areas have significantly better mental health than others. That’s the conclusion of a 2013 study of more than 1,000 people in the UK, followed by five years in which they moved to another residential area. Several epidemiological studies have also shown that urban green spaces are associated with better mental health, reduced depression, improved sleep, and lower rates of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, obesity, and diabetes.
In addition to the well-being and happiness that contact with nature provides, these spaces have also been shown to have a positive effect on cognitive abilities such as attention, creativity or memory. As a result, public health authorities are increasingly pursuing policies to increase green spaces in cities. What about blue spaces, be it a coast, a lake, or other points of water? No one was really interested in this question until two British researchers reported the results of a large nationwide study of happiness and well-being.
Significantly higher levels of happiness and well-being
This study, which included more than 20,000 people, found that participants felt significantly happier being in contact with nature, regardless of its type and regardless of the day of the week or weather conditions. But above all, this study revealed the fact that sea and coastal areas were the best sources of happiness.
“Marine and coastal areas are by far the most hospitable places, with levels of well-being about 6 points higher than in urban environments on a scale of 0 to 100,” the study authors write. This difference is similar to the one felt between visiting an exhibition and doing housework, they note. All other types of green or natural environments (mountains, moorlands and moorlands, freshwater, wetlands and floodplains, forests, grasslands and farmland) were 2.7–1.8 points higher than in the urban environment.
These results are consistent with those from the BlueHealth Project, a study of the recreational use of blue spaces and their relationship to human health conducted in 18 countries. This survey included questions about how often people visit various natural features, including a range of blue and green spaces. “Our large-scale data analysis showed that people who live closer to the coast have better general and mental health and are more physically active,” the project team concluded. The researchers note that these benefits were even greater for people with low incomes or those living in poorer areas.
An atmosphere conducive to putting your mind on pause
Why does nature, and water in particular, bring us such well-being? Maybe it’s a pure primal instinct, an unconscious desire to return to the roots? In 1960, biologist Alistair Hardy did claim that our human ancestors migrated straight from the forest to the coast, adapting to aquatic habitats. A theory that could explain our good swimming ability or our hairless bodies (compared to great apes); however, this assumption is highly controversial.
Psychologists lean more towards a theory called “attention recovery”: while we’re being interrogated every day from all angles, focusing our attention on nature’s stimuli would allow us to give our minds a useful breather. In this state, sensory information influences our thoughts, what experts call “bottom-up control” – a much less tedious process than top-down control, in which our thoughts regulate our actions.
Thus, blue spaces are much more relaxing than green spaces because they generate stimuli that are not found in parks or forests: tides, the regular movement and sound of the waves, sunsets over water… especially soothing, almost hypnotic phenomena. By focusing on these details, our attention is distracted from negative thoughts for a while.
Research also shows that blue spaces evoke certain activities that do not or cannot take place in green spaces: playing in the sand, swimming, rowing, etc. Social experiences associated with these activities with family or friends, especially good for the mood. A recent study, meanwhile, found that it wasn’t so much time spent by the water (or in the woods) that improved mental health as much as “psychological connection to the natural world”—the feeling of being part of nature or seeing beauty in natural things. Just looking at photographs or a nature documentary can evoke this feeling to some extent.