Given the universality of water in stories of creation and healing, it appears that human beings have always understood that water is vital for happiness and well-being. In recent years, however, the connection between water and happiness has been explored by a host of mainstream scientists, especially neuroscientists. Researchers around the globe have demonstrated that being in natural environments with water makes human beings more relaxed, happier, and more satisfied with life. For example, a Canadian study discovered that taking a fifteen-minute walk along the Ottawa River boosted energy and positive emotions for the participants. A United Kingdom social psychologist found that photographs of waterscapes prompted feelings of relaxation and a desire by subjects to want to live near the particular scene. And it is not only pictures of water – just seeing the color blue promotes feelings of well-being, “producing physical, cognitive, and emotional benefits,” similar to the effects of dopamine on the brain.
A Stanford University researcher analyzed fMRI results and found that engaging nature stimulates the same area of the brain as does food, sex, and money. Studies in Europe and North America continue to show that either viewing nature or engaging in outdoor sports, especially when involving oceans, lakes, or rivers, calms us and elevates positive emotions. It also promotes attentiveness, concentration, and creativity. In addition to steadying human emotions, being near water has proved to have curative effects on many health problems, including PTSD, depression, addictions, autism, pain, anxiety, stress, and attention disorders, and to hasten healing from surgery, illness, and injuries. As marine biologist Wallace Nichols observes, “Nature is medicine; this is an idea now reiterated by modern science.”
Almost thirty years ago, when I was a graduate student at Duke, I was plagued by extreme anxiety. Graduate school is, admittedly, an anxious environment for many people. Unlike most of my stressed classmates, however, I could not eat, lost thirty pounds, had trouble sleeping, and was consumed by worry. Concerned friends suggested all manner of things, including medication. One insisted on a simpler cure: “Go to the beach.”
I went to Emerald Isle, North Carolina, and stayed right on the ocean in an old, weather-worn house nothing like the mansions more recently built on the Outer Banks. For hours, I watched the waves from a bench built into the wooden walkway that connected the cottage and beach. I walked at the edge of the ocean, looking for shells mostly. It was therapeutic.
Of all the shells, I liked the pink conch best. There were only conch fragments on the beach. A friend told me that it was exceedingly difficult to find an unbroken one in these waters. But one morning, while wading in the surf, I caught a glimpse of a large pink conch in the waves. Not a fragment – a whole one.
I dove for the shell. It slipped through my fingers. I dove again and reached, saltwater stinging my eyes. I felt it in my hand and grasped it tightly as a wave knocked me off my feet. When I came up from the water, I was still clutching the shell. Wet and pearly, it was perfect.
I sat on the beach, holding it close to my chest. I found myself repeating, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Thank you? I realized that I was not only glad to have found the shell, but also grateful. I had forgotten that life was a gift. “Thank you” was a prayer of remembrance and healing. I felt at peace, somehow sensing a spiritual turning point. Years later, I learned that Buddhists believe that the conch symbolizes awakening, that it shakes us from slumbers of ignorance and propels us toward the journey of self-discovery and serving others. On that day, sitting in the sand and uttering fluid prayers, I felt bizarrely happy for the first time in a long time.
A new interdisciplinary community of scientists, environmentalists, health researchers, therapists, and artists is coalescing around an idea: neuroconservation. Embracing the notion that we treasure what we love, those concerned with water and the future of the planet now suggest that, as we understand our emotional well-being and its relationship to water, we are more motivated to repair, restore, and renew waterways and watersheds. Indeed, even as water is threatened, or perhaps because of the threat, public interest in water is very high. We treasure it – or, perhaps more accurately, we spend our treasure to access water for pleasure, recreation, and healing. Wealthy people pay a premium for houses on water, and the not so wealthy pay extra for rentals and hotel rooms sited at the oceanfront, on rivers, or at lakes. Those into outdoor sports, especially fishers and hunters, are fiercely protective of it and have founded numerous environmental organizations designed to protect water habitats for fish, birds, and animals.
Over the last two decades, spas have become a sort of modern equivalent to ancient healing wells. As an industry, spas are a global business worth about $60 billion, and they generate another $200 billion in tourism. In 2013, there were 20,000 (up from 4,000 in 1999) spas in the United States producing an annual revenue of over $14 billion (a figure that has grown every year for fifteen years, including those of the recession), and tallying 164 million spa visits by clients. Ecotourism provides water adventures and guided trips, often in kayaks, rafts, or canoes. Ocean and river cruises are big business. Cities are creating urban architectures focused on waterscapes, happiness, and sustainability. Museums and public memorials of all sorts often feature water to foster reflection and meditation. And many communities are working to transform industrialized and polluted waterfronts into spaces that are pleasant, environmentally sound, and livable.
It’s easy to see how water makes us feel better physically and emotionally, but there is a spiritual benefit as well: neurological studies about water bear a striking resemblance to studies conducted on prayer and meditation. Indeed, people who are near or in water express higher levels of happiness and often demonstrate better health outcomes; so too do people who pray and meditate. Wallace Nichols, who never overtly writes of religion in his book, Blue Mind, connects water with meditation, edging toward the territory of theology:
Several years ago I came up with a name for this human-water connection: Blue Mind, a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion. It takes advantage of neurological connections formed over millennia, many such brain patters and preferences being discovered only now, thanks to innovative scientists and cutting-edge technology.
Today science explores the objective dimensions of water and wellness, but the interplay between water, wellness, and spirituality was well known to our ancestors. Primal myths shared this ancient wisdom, and creation stories extolled the divine nature of water. Past generations built healing wells, spas, and baths, and archaeological remains still testify to their faith in water. Great religions created their rituals around water. Science can now map our neural pathways when we gather at the river, and psychologists can demonstrate the connection between happiness and water. But they are only proving something our souls have always known.
Water holds deep wisdom; it keeps our ancient memories of origins and our creaturely dependence. But we forget. From time-to-time, we need to be reminded that water is essential to health and happiness. Looking up from my desk, I see the conch on my bookshelf, close by and always visible, as it has been since that day on the beach, a token of God, of healing and grace.