Placid Places Soothe Mind and Body

Some places feel serene and secure (even when they're not).

Posted Jun 12, 2010

Scene from Ka'ena Point trail
It was a postcard-perfect day in early April. My boyfriend and I left his truck at the end of the road and then spent a glorious few hours hiking the wild coastline to Ka'ena Point, the westernmost point on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. The sun was out, the vistas were spectacular and the monk seals, humpback whales, spinner dolphins and Laysan albatross were putting on a show—all in all, an exhilarating yet somehow also very peaceful and relaxing day. Of course, that was before we returned to find that the truck had been stolen.

It was a nasty shock, the scenario you always worry about that had finally come to pass in real life. The fact that I was kicking myself for leaving my purse cleverly hidden inside the truck only made matters worse. In an instant, my euphoric bubble burst.

Long story short, the truck (minus the purse) was recovered the next day only a little worse for the wear. And a few weeks later, there we were back hiking the same spot. Oh, we parked at a different location this time, and we took extra precautions when locking up the truck. But then we set off down the same trail again—and within a matter of minutes, the anxiety began to drain away and the feelings of peacefulness and relaxation began rolling in as dependably as the tide.

That's a powerfully relaxing spot. And I couldn't help wondering what it was about this particular place that made it feel so serene and, evidence to the contrary, secure.

Serene Scenes
Placid places are undoubtedly as individual as the people who enjoy them. But based on recent research, many have several of the following six attributes; Ka'ena Point has them all in abundance.

  • Nature
    The experience of nature in humanity's evolutionary past has left its mark on our modern brains. As a result, studies have found that even born-and-bred city dwellers have an innate affinity for natural environments. A burgeoning body of research shows that spending time in nature provokes effortless attention, restores mental alertness, reduces stress, decreases anger, promotes a feeling of vitality and even increases longevity. Natural settings also lend themselves to walking, hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking and other physical activities, so they encourage exercise. Plus, exploring nature with family, friends or pets strengthens healthy bonds.
  • Beauty
    Beauty is in the brain of the beholder, and our brains seem to be wired to appreciate many features of the natural world. We're drawn to the fractal forms—geometric patterns that repeat at ever smaller scales—of ocean waves and tree branches. We're attracted to the gentle rhythms of grass rustling in the breeze and clouds drifting across the sky. And we're beguiled by nature's harmonious balance between such patterns and vivid diversity. The result is the sheer joy we feel when gazing at a panoramic vista or colorful sunset.
  • Space
    Open space is the perfect antidote to the stress of cramped homes, crowded stores and jammed highways. In fact, openness seems to be one of the attributes that make natural environments so appealing. Evolutionarily speaking, this may hearken to the days when our ancestors roamed the African savanna. Today, research shows that people still associate savanna-like settings with peacefulness, tranquility and relaxation. But it's not only green space that has this effect. A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that images containing blue space—in other words, water—were also associated with positive feelings and perceived as highly restorative.
  • Quiet
    Nature isn't silent. Yet many sounds of nature are perceived as quietly relaxing—think rolling surf, burbling brooks, rustling leaves and chirping birds. Such sounds are a stark contrast to the ringing phones, honking car horns, blaring TVs and earsplitting leaf blowers of everyday life. Maybe that's why 72% of national park visitors rank the natural quiet and sounds of nature as an important reason for preserving the parks.
  • Sunlight
    By all means, put on your sunscreen, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hat. Once you've done that, however, take a few minutes to savor the sunshine. Most people prefer natural light over the artificial lighting in homes and offices. And there's a reason we use the term "sunny disposition" to describe someone who is cheerful. Research has shown that exposure to sunlight can boost mood, reduce tiredness and improve cognitive function.
  • Wildlife
    Everything about the BP oil spill is disturbing. But it's the images of oil-drenched birds that have really riveted the nation's attention. According to the biophilia hypothesis, that's because humans have a natural responsiveness to other living things. We like places that let us experience animals in their natural habitats. A recent study of wildlife tourists found that such encounters can inspire feelings of awe, wonder and connectedness.

Peak Places
Factor in all these benefits, and it comes as no surprise that many people say they've experienced one of those transcendent, time-of-their-life moments in just such surroundings. That's how I felt hiking at Ka'ena Point in April. And even the nasty shock of returning to find an empty space where the truck should have been couldn't obliterate the feeling, because it's as much a part of the landscape there as the cliffs, the sand and the sea.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is author of Stress Control for Peace of Mind (Main Street/Barnes & Noble, 2005) for adults and Meditation (Franklin Watts, 2004) for kids. She spends much of her time on Oahu.

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