We all like to be beside the seaside, right? Well, why exactly? Sure, there's the swimming, the sun, the pina coladas. But a recent study linking domestic sea views to lower levels of psychological distress may go some way to explaining why a coastal vacation can fundamentally make us feel so darn good.
The research by a scholar from Michigan State University looked at Wellington in New Zealand, comparing the mental wellbeing of people who lived within view of the ocean to those that didn't. Equalising out other factors such as financial status, age and further environmental influences, that sea view came up trumps in creating greater mental wellbeing. And it was due to what the researchers called access to "blue space". Apparently just looking into that "blue space" can make us feel better.
While the study didn't delve into how that affects those who holiday by the sea, that is, how long you need to have that access to said blue space before all the good feelings come on, Dr Melissa Weinberg of Deakin University's School of Psychology says the science stacks up to suggest a waterside vacation is good for our stress levels.
Through Deakin's Australian Centre on Quality of Life, Dr Weinberg specialises in the study of "subjective wellbeing", the scientific name for happiness.
She says we are hardwired to have an optimal level of happiness – in scientific quantification, that's about 80 per cent happy. But environmental factors can make us more or less so. Their effect, however, is temporary. "We have internal processes to help regulate that," says Dr Weinberg. "Most emotions are temporary. They are a response to something happening. But then we engage in a process, such as optimism, to restore our happiness back to the optimal level."
Though stress is a useful tool to focus us obviously, it can make us less happy if we're constantly stressed.
"Under stressful situations, the brain is acting in a certain type of way which, though appropriate to ensure no further stress is encountered, limits creativity and broad vision which long term is not helpful," says Dr Weinberg. "It's stuck in a box where it has a narrow focus and it might need to be there to deal with the stressful situation effectively, but it's not really where it likes to be."
Dr Weinberg says a nice ocean view gives the brain a strong visual cue to sort itself out.
"Now, think about taking the brain into a wide open space where it likes to be, such as a beach, where your visual field literally extends until the horizon. That facilitates the process of the brain returning to it's default mode, where it usually functions best, enabling it to daydream, imagine, and be creative," she says. "And that's the excuse I use for my annual visit to Hawaii."
So what about lovely green forests? The Michigan study found they didn't have the same effect. Dr Weinberg says that "fits in with the idea that it's the capacity to see space that's effective. It's nice to see nature but the view is still confined."