The Summer Pastime That Helps Iceland Rank So High in Happiness Charts

The second-happiest nation in the world swears by this activity, and you can reap the benefits, too.
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The second-happiest nation in the world swears by this activity, and you can reap the benefits, too.

As a former competitive swimmer, jumping into a pool is one of the most amazing, refreshing feelings for me. And, according to research, it could be the key to your happiest summer yet.

In a recent story for the New York Times, “Iceland’s Water Cure,” Dan Kois investigates whether communal pools may be behind the country ranking as the second-happiest in the world (the U.S. ranked thirteenth). Apart from having participants rank their own happiness, the World Happiness Index study bases its results on levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, and freedom.

How can Icelanders be so happy when the sun almost never rises for half the year? Whether the country is enveloped in sunshine or darkness, one thing remains constant: Everyone swims in pools. Iceland has more than 120 public pools, or sundlaugar, open all year long. I visited Iceland on my honeymoon this year, so I can attest to the abundance of swimming pools, even in small villages out in the middle of nowhere. Most countries have signs along the interstate for gas stations or restaurants. Iceland has that for swimming pools.

A 2014 United Kingdom government study by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport also reports that swimming may have one of the most positive impacts on boosting contentment compared to other leisure activities like going to the library, working out at the gym, or playing music. Forty-thousand participants were asked how much they’d fork over for various art and sports activities. After dancing, swimming was at the top of the list: Participants were willing to spend $1,800 a year to participate in it.

Yes, spending time in a pool is nice, but how does this activity increase happiness and well-being? Here are a few ways taking a dip can increase your sense of calm and contentment.

A Meditative Practice

While in college, I saw a therapist to help treat my anxiety. One of the first tools I learned was meditative breathing. I’d breathe in deeply and hold my breath for a few seconds before releasing the air.

This style of breathing is meant to calm you down. And when you swim, you practice this same breathing technique. All-American Honors swimmer Jim Thornton writes in Swimmer magazine, “. . . swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern.” Therese J. Borchard, associate editor of Psych Central, shares, “Swimming, for me, seems to zap a bad mood more efficiently than even running. Swimming a good 3,000 meters for me can, in the midst of a depressive cycle, hush the dead thoughts for up to two hours. It’s like taking a Tylenol for a headache!”

During most other aerobic exercises, we may not think much about breathing. This is different in the pool. A swimmer must focus on their breath, making sure to inhale and exhale properly.

Swimming is also unlike activities such as trail running or biking because, without a change in scenery, the activity becomes extremely repetitive, forcing you to focus within yourself. This is a perfect time to create a mantra, an encouraging phrase to live by. Repeating your mantra can help you focus on the moment, a form of mindfulness. I’ve always repeated to myself: “I am enough, I have enough.” Whether you swim for exercise or fun, let the water help you focus on the present, practice meditative breathing, and encourage you for whatever lies ahead.

A Natural Antidepressant

Depression can be caused by many factors, but one cause is a falter in the neurotransmitter system of your brain that weakens or disrupts messages between neurons and can negatively affect mood. While people can take medicine to treat depression, putting on a swimsuit and jumping in the pool could be an effective treatment too.

A study published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine reports that when it comes to fighting depression, exercise in patients seems comparable with patients receiving antidepressant medication. Many antidepressants increase the neurotransmitter serotonin, which produces stress-reducing hormones, in the brain. Swimming does this naturally. 

“On the physiological level, hard swimming workouts release endorphins, natural feel-good compounds. . . . Swimming serves, as well, to sop up excess fight-or-flight stress hormones, converting free-floating angst into muscle relaxation,” Thornton writes. In fact, extensive scientific literature and studies support aquatic therapy for a diverse patient population.

A Sleep Aid

Do you ever find yourself lying in bed trying to fall asleep only to get increasingly more frustrated that you can’t fall asleep? Well, not only does swimming impact mental health, but its benefits can also spill over into other areas of your life, such as improving sleep quality.

In a study by MindLab International, participants who swam regularly over the course of four weeks saw an increase in sleep quality by 40 percent and an increase in energy levels of 51 percent. If an extra half hour of sleep in the morning makes you happy, then the benefits of swimming will make you feel like you’re on cloud nine.

The Social Event of the Season

Back to Kois’ story on Iceland’s pools: He noted that when Icelandic people bathe in public pools, they bathe with anyone and everyone. The odds of meeting someone new or talking to an old friend are very likely. Sort of like American coffee shops, swimming pools have become Iceland's main social gathering place.

Who will you meet at your city’s public pool, your local YMCA, or at a club this summer? For me, the pool was where I spent quality time with my dad, met my childhood best friend, and developed a passion for competitive sports, all of which has contributed to my enjoyment of life.

Wallace J. Nichols, author of Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do says that “our brains are hardwired to react positively to water,” which helps calm and connect us.

In the middle of the day, when life seems all too hectic and scattered, I find myself reminiscing about playing in my best friend’s backyard pool as a 10-year-old. I have trained my brain to meditate on pools and swimming when I get stressed. As though instinctively, the thought of water and the carefree spirit it brings gives me peace.

Photo Credit: Molly Winters