When you’re on vacation on St. Simon’s Island, sitting by the water in Hilton Head, or Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a care in the world. It’s not just the fact that you’re on vacation that is relaxing, though, but the ocean itself. According to several scientific studies, the beach is good for the brain, as it makes us happy, relaxed, and reenergized.
In a 2011 study, researchers at Washington University and UC Irvine asked over 1,000 beachgoers about their mental state before and after trips to the ocean. They found that beach trips reduce stress, increase creativity, and can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety and were overall restorative for our psychological well-being. Those who experienced more stress and fatigue in their daily life found the beach the most reinvigorating. As for conditions, they found that mild temperatures, low tides, and sparse crowds were the best conditions for restoration, which sounds like a great reason to visit the beach off-season. While the researchers focused on California beaches, there’s no reason the same theory wouldn’t apply to the Gulf Coast, the Outer Banks, or the Florida Keys.
Their work was confirmed in a more recent study of people living in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. A team of researchers from New Zealand and the U.S. found that people lucky enough to live in sight of water had lower levels of psychological stress. That’s one more reason to spring for the ocean view when booking a hotel room.
In an earlier paper, the same research team figured out why people are happier near the water: You’re more likely to be physically active, you’re more likely to run into people to chat with, and they’re easier on the eyes and mind than, say, an Atlanta freeway at rush hour.
Of course, it’s not always possible to visit the beach. Luckily, it turns out that sitting on the sand and hearing the crash of the waves isn’t the only way to receive the benefits of the beach. Some lab research has shown that just looking at images of seascapes can be calming and even visiting a virtual beach can be good for the mind. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of Plymouth showed that patients who went to the beach using virtual reality headsets had much better experiences during dental visits. It wasn’t just that they were distracted by the beach trip, but were less anxious and experienced less pain, too.
In short: The next time you’re feeling stressed out, grab some sunblock and a picnic and head to the beach—doctor’s orders!