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A few years ago, I took a solo trip to Iceland. While visiting the natural hot springs at the Blue Lagoon, I waded neck-deep through some of the warmest and bluest water I had ever laid eyes on. Champagne in-hand and slathered in a luxurious mud mask, I remember feeling overcome with joy. It was there I first came to wonder about the relationship between two things that so often occur alongside one another: joy and water.
My love of water isn’t unique, of course. I bet most of us entertain dreamy summer fantasies of cool plunges or know the quiet bliss of watching light dance off the surface of a lake or pool.
But, have you ever wondered where that feeling of peace and relaxation actually comes from? It’s one thing to feel that something is a solution, but I had to know if there was any truth to how water makes me feel. Here are five ways water brings us joy.
In the book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols builds an argument for why he believes being near — or in — water makes us feel better and inevitably leads to a healthier life.
One observation he makes is about how people tend to flock to places near water for vacation. (A 2019 survey found “beach destinations” were the number one vacay choice for people in the U.S., with “cruises” coming in third.)
I, myself, relate to this strongly. I crave the way I feel around water. Whether it be a 5-mile hike to a waterfall, a drive up the PCH, or diving into waves in Malibu with dolphins swimming in the distance, whenever I want to get away, water is the first place I turn.
According to a study by Michigan State University, this impulse to seek out water to escape our busy lives may have to do with the effect being near bodies of water has on our psyche. The study found that even just having a view of blue spaces was associated with lower levels of “psychological distress.”
Did you know amniotic fluid is 98 percent water and electrolytes? It’s in this tiny watery dwelling that we develop into our ready-to-be-born selves. And even though we can’t remember those early days, many believe mimicking the conditions of the womb is a route to true relaxation.
Remember sensory deprivation tanks? Somewhere around the early 2000s people started paying a small fortune to float in womb-like rooms for next-level relaxation. These rooms, which are sound- and light-proof and filled with a foot or less of salinated water, is said to be as close as one can come to feeling the weightlessness you experience in utero.
One study showed twelve float sessions over a 7-week period was linked to a positive impact on anxiety, depression symptoms, sleep, tension headaches, and neck pain.
When I dive into the ocean, it feels as though my stress is floating away into the water. And it turns out that exhilarating shock of diving into chilly water sets off a chain of chemical reactions in our brain that has a calming effect on our nervous system.
And according to this study, being exposed to cold water for as little as 3 minutes at a time can immediately decrease stress and help guide you to calm inner waters. That’s because once our bodies adjust to the cold water, the opposite of fight or flight kicks in, rest and digest. This relaxes the body and lets it know there is no present danger.
Going back to Blue Mind, a key part of Nichols’ theory is that simply being near water allows us access to a semi-meditative state he coins “drifting.” Drifting is a special form of attention when we’re engaged with the world around us but not focused on getting on something done.
Reading this made me reminisce about the cruises I took as a kid. How the most relaxing times on the ship were “days at sea.” Long days when all we did was simply travel in between ports. The feeling of knowing I was surrounded by water for miles in every direction with nothing to do brought about the meditative feeling Nichols prides his book upon.
Though I may have been a kid, days at sea imparted this feeling amongst my whole family. It was a day to be nothing but relaxed.
Some of my favorite memories from being young involve water. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, my friends and I used to take day trips to the beach on the hottest days of summer. We’d spend all day running from the water as it brushed the shore and relishing the feeling of the water rushing over our backs as we dove beneath the breaking waves. If I close my eyes, I can still hear their laughter and see their smiles.
Summer may be over for now, but my memories of water will float me through the colder weather ahead. Until then, find me taking winter swims, cold showers, and every chance I get to dive into some water.
Coming to Los Angeles from Oakland, California, Magdalena O’Neal has self-published a book of poetry and has been studying creative writing and journalism for the last 7 years. She loves baking and coming up with new recipes to fuel her vegan and gluten-free companions!