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Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, is likely the world’s foremost authority on the mental-health benefits of spending time near, in, on, or under water — what the marine biologist calls a Blue Mind state. Yet he’s at a pivot point in his career.

“I spent the last 20 years proving that water really does improve your health,” he says. “Now I want to turn this into common knowledge — the kind that can’t be unfunded or forgotten.”

He leaned on those insights in a big way last summer, when the California wildfires destroyed his beloved creek-side mountain home. “There was nothing left but the fireplace, a teacup fused to a plate, some metal. I stripped down and got in the creek adjacent to the pile of ash that was my home. The water was cold, but it felt so good at a time when I felt about as bad as I’ve ever felt in my life,” he recalls.

Nichols’s watery journey started at a young age. An intro­verted adoptee struggling with a stutter, he found solace beneath the surface of any pool or lake.

He channeled that comfort into a career, first working to save sea turtles, then laboring to save us all. “Now I ask everyone: ‘What’s the water you dream of? That you first fell in love with?’” he says. “You’ll probably tell me where you felt moments of joy, grief, celebration, maybe romance. Water is where we’re naturally drawn, whether it’s the beach, a lake, or a fountain in a park in the city.” (For more on his findings on water and mental health, “Blue Mind“.)

Nichols shares his tips for tapping into the power of water in daily life here.

Measure your well-being.

Using the insights from his research, Nichols helps people gauge their mental health: “Blue Mind is peaceful, like how you feel around water. Red Mind is aggressive, go-go, anxious, and about getting things done. Gray Mind is burnout. When you notice your mind state, you are in a place to change it. For instance, someone might say, ‘I’m feeling a little too much Red Mind, so I’m going to take an hour for Blue Mind.’ The people who need Blue Mind most feel the biggest move of the needle.”

Turn to water instead of devices. 

“We’ve all been using screens too much in the pandemic, and there’s something special about the fact you can’t take your phone or your laptop into the bathtub or your kayak — or you definitely shouldn’t. The water is telling you to unplug.”

Take a water inventory. 

Do you have a bathtub, a shower, access to a pool? That’s your domestic water. Now, urban water: A river-walk downtown near work, a fountain at a park? Wild water is a beach or a creek. Virtual water can be any art, photography, music, or poetry that brings water to your mind. Now go through your categories: What can you do every day, every week, to intentionally get more water in your life?” 

Teach all children to swim. 

“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d make it so that every kid knew how to swim before fourth grade. We evolved in the water, even if we don’t remember it, then we unlearn swimming. But it’s such a great way to unify people. And as parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is a lifelong love of water.”

Do your part.

“People are always asking, ‘What are the top three things I can do to save the ocean, lakes, and rivers?’ It’s a bit of a trick question, as everyone knows what they can do. The real question is, ‘What can you do that you’re not doing yet?’ Do that.”

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer based in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two children and buys only local honey.

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