Wallace J. Nichols
Little, Brown and Company, 280pp, 2014, $27.00 hc
This book examines the science that supports the subjective feeling of well-being that most people experience when they are "Near, in or under water". Since I first could put two thoughts together, I have personally felt that being within sight of the water, (in my case, the Atlantic Ocean) was way better than not but mostly I chocked that up to being just plain lucky...and that most of my ocean experiences took place during a "vacation". On vacation you better be enjoying yourself or you're wasting time and money. According to Mr. Nichols, being on vacation is irrelevant.
Hard facts exist to support the phenomenon of feeling better (more relaxed and satisfied with yourself) in the presence of water. The most obvious is that we are made up of 75% water...there must be a chemical affinity. Furthermore, life began in the sea and our "ancestors" didn't bother to climb out of it until 375 million years ago. In spite of our industriousness, water is still the "most omnipresent substance" on Earth, along with air.
Author, Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Scientists, is comfortable with complex concepts but is not mired in the detail of research. He is obviously warmed by and energetically positive about his subject, yet careful to limit and simplify technical detail. Therefore explanations of the reactions and interactions of our bodies and our psyches with our birthing and sustaining element are precise and straightforward--essentially there is a positive reaction in the brain to water, without requiring hard thought. It is almost as if we already know what he's talking about at some sub-verbal level…at least that's how I felt while reading...but then I whine because I live several miles away from the water and can only hear it when the surf is up and I listen very hard...(and I have been accused of "audio-imagination").
Research psychologists theorize that each of us has a "happiness" baseline, 50% derived from genetics and 10% from life experiences, 40% "is shaped by voluntarily pursuing personal goals through meaningful activities" (like helping others). Positive reactions in the brain have also been observed in subjects who are simply shown pleasant nature views but that it is especially the coastal views that activate the brain's reward system.
Because of the research that has established that a general sense of well-being is felt by the majority of human beings in the presence of bodies of water, programs around the world "use boats and sailing as rehabilitative therapy for such disabilities as paralysis, blindness, deafness and amputation as well as developmental disabilities like ADHD, autism, Down syndrome." On the purely recreational side of our attraction to water, 1.24 million people tried stand up paddle boarding in 2013.
But take heart, we don't all have to rush to the sea like lemmings in order to achieve a sense of well-being. One of the most charming discoveries in Nichols' research is that we have some of the very same reaction of pleasure in the presence of a gold fish bowl.