Six months ago I turned 40 and tried surfing for the first time. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I’ve been thinking about how psychology might explain why surfing had such an impact on me.
Surfing gave me a sense of joy I haven’t experienced for a long time. The rush was unbelievable, especially for those few sweet moments when I stood and rode a wave. I finished feeling completely invigorated yet totally calm in a way that I haven’t experienced before. Here’s 5 reasons from psychology why that might be:
When surfing I was totally immersed in the moment, concentrating fully on my goal of standing up and riding a wave. No multi-tasking, no ego, no sense of time. Although my mind was extremely busy concentrating it was also incredibly tranquil. In other words, I was experiencing the heightened focus and absorption in an activity positive psychologists call ‘flow’.
Csikszentmihalyi is the granddaddy of flow and he suggests that to experience it an activity should have a balance between challenge and enjoyment, with challenge being the most important factor; what at you’re doing should be challenging, but not so hard that you think it’s impossible – it’s one of the reasons computer games are so addictive. For me, surfing fits that bill perfectly – I found it pretty tricky, but the sense of exhilaration when I manged to ride a wave was worth every dunking, donk on the head from my board and mouthful of Pacific ocean!
Studies suggest flow can lead to greater happiness, increased well-being and a positive sense of self. And while one study of big-wave surfers suggests that the flow experienced in surfing can have a dangerously addictive quality, I think I’ll be ok!
There is an undeniable connection between the body, mind and nature that takes place when you’re surfing. Psychology backs this up…
Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
There is much evidence for the benefits of exercise on the mind – this study found that even a single session of moderate exercise impacted participants’ cognitive performance, and this 2013 review of other studies concluded that physical activity was a valuable tool in preventing depression. So surfing is good for your mental and physical health and using up all that energy meant amazing big breakfasts in Woody’s!
Cognitive Benefits of Exercising in Nature
Combining exercise with nature may have particular benefits for the brain; this 2015 study found participants who walked in nature for 90 minutes had reduced brain activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with mental health issues. This didn’t happen in the group who walked in an urban environment. So, this probably contributed to my post-surf grin!
Cognitive Benefits of Being in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s been known for centuries that being by expanses of water has many benefits for well-being. In his book ‘Blue Mind’, Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist explores how being by or in water increases calmness, decreases anxiety and increases performance. Most of us would be hard pressed to disagree and we spent much of our holiday by the ocean – the Pacific Beach sunsets were incredible!
Surfing has many things in common with other activities shown to have highly positive impact on well-being, such as mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Certainly the instructions to ‘take a breath, relax and wait for the wave’ felt very similar to yoga and meditation.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to alter the structure of the brain, particularly the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) associated with anxiety and increase athletes’ sense of flow. And this 2015 study found that those who practiced yoga regularly did not display the age-related decline in grey matter of the control group. So, the parallels between surfing and yoga – you position yourself into a cobra pose before popping up onto the board (and adopting a version of warrior) – may bring additional brain and mind benefits, as does being a total beginner…
I was first introduced to the concept of a beginners’ mind by the brilliant meditation app ‘headspace’ (if you haven’t tried it – you should). The concept of Beginner’s Mind , or ‘shosin’ as Buddhists call it, is all about having the ‘attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception’ that beginners usually possess.
Being a beginner surfer gave me permission to be rubbish without any need for explanation. I left my ego on the beach – there is no way you can care what people think when you are being dunked unceremoniously by a large wave wearing a wetsuit. There is a real sense of freedom – and fun – in that.
Tiny things felt huge; when I progressed from getting one knee up before tipping off to getting half way up, it felt great. When I stood up, it felt absolutely incredible. When I stayed up – for about 2 seconds before I squealed with glee and fell into the Pacific – it was the most exhilarating feeling ever! The enormous fun that goes with that is something as adults we quite often forget. There are well-documented cognitive benefits of play for children though few studies focus on adults, the success of last year’s adult ball pit Jump In! and this telegraph article examining the trend behind ‘play for adults’, suggests it’s an area of increasing interest and I’d definitely volunteer for a study!
As an adult I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself out of my comfort zone. While being a mum put a stop to activities like bungee jumping, learning to surf with my son was pretty cool, even though I was pretty nervous before-hand.
Harnessing a healthy level of anxiety has long been acknowledged as important in living life to the full. The Yerkes-Dodson U-shaped curve developed in 1908 explained why we perform better when we are experiencing some anxiety. However, there is a fine line – too much anxiety and arousal and performance drops.
So, surfing for me was anxiety-inducing to a point, but not enough to make me so anxious my knees knocked and I froze (that was bungee jumping!). And sharing this experience with my son I hope will encourage him to go outside his comfort zone in the future and understand why that’s a good thing.
So there you go, 5 ideas from psychology that may explain my love for learning to surf. I can personally account for the fact that there are so many benefits to surfing; it’s definitely worth a try! While California is not quite accessible every weekend, I’ll definitely be seeking out the best surfing spots in the UK and Europe. Thurso anyone?
Update: New research from Michigan State University suggests looking out over the ocean or sea makes you happier!