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 Why We Surf

 The Links Between Surfing & Wellbeing

Words by Kim Feldmann de Britto
The rhythmic sound of crashing waves, the salty breeze that envelops your senses, the exhilarating sensation of gliding across the water’s surface. While surfing’s origins can be traced back to ancient Polynesian cultures, where it held deep spiritual significance, today it has become a globally embraced sport with a myriad of benefits extending far beyond the surface of the water. Scientists, psychologists, and surfers themselves have increasingly recognised the profound effects that this seemingly simple act can have on one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. From the moment one paddles out into the vast ocean to catch that perfect wave, a journey of self-discovery and healing unfolds, ultimately leaving individuals with a renewed sense of balance and inner peace.
In the following article, Mahalo delves into the multifaceted advantages of surfing, exploring how wave-riding influences our psychology, enhances our emotional resilience, and fosters a deep connection to the natural world. Drawing from scientific research, we highlight the reasons why this water sport has gained popularity as a therapeutic and transformative experience, captivating the hearts and minds of countless individuals worldwide.

The Psychological Benefits of Surfing

Research has shown that, due to their unique blend of physical exertion and mental focus, engaging in activities like surfing can have numerous psychological benefits — from reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety to mitigating depression. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that engaging in regular physical activity, including water-based activities like surfing, was associated with lower levels of psychological distress and improved well-being. Another study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that individuals who engaged in outdoor activities, such as surfing, reported lower levels of perceived stress and higher levels of positive affect compared to those who engaged in indoor activities.
This is usually the consequence of feeling the rhythmic movement of the waves, which, combined with the soothing sounds of the ocean, induces a state of relaxation and promotes a sense of calmness. Moreover, surfing involves intense concentration and focus, especially when riding a wave. Successfully catching and riding a wave requires an acute awareness of one’s surroundings, including the shifting dynamics of the water and the timing needed to catch the wave at the right moment. This intense focus — a state of mindfulness where individuals are fully engaged in the present activity — creates a flow-like experience that can be deeply meditative, diverting attention away from negative thoughts, and allowing individuals to experience a mental break from their daily worries and rumination.
So whether it’s the therapeutic effects of the ocean or the meditative rhythm of the waves, surfing offers a unique avenue for enhancing psychological well-being. According to professional surfer Kelly Slater, “Surfing is such a peaceful and harmonious way of life. It really becomes a part of you and changes the way you see things, and that’s quite profound.” Slater’s words illustrate how surfing can transform one’s perspective on life, fostering a sense of mindfulness and providing a much-needed mental break from negative thoughts.

Enhancing Emotional Resilience

Surfing is not merely a physical pursuit; it also has a profound impact on emotional well-being. Scientific studies have shown that engaging in thrilling activities like surfing releases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain, promoting feelings of joy and satisfaction, and helping maintain a positive outlook. Besides, confronting the immense power of the ocean and conquering its waves instils a sense of achievement and self-confidence. Research supports the notion that surfing enhances emotional resilience, showing that the process of learning to read and navigate the ever-changing conditions of the surf cultivates adaptability. Dr Emma Smith, a psychologist specialising in sports psychology, explains, “Surfing teaches individuals to face unpredictable situations and make split-second decisions. This ability to adapt and persevere builds mental resilience that extends beyond the water.”
Surfing also teaches individuals to embrace challenges, overcome fears, and persevere in the face of adversity. Research suggests that the experience of paddling out into the surf and facing powerful waves can be intimidating and evoke fear. However, by gradually pushing their boundaries and confronting these fears, surfers develop a greater sense of self-belief. This process of facing fears and overcoming obstacles in the water can extend beyond surfing, positively impacting individuals’ ability to tackle challenges and setbacks in other aspects of life. Dr Mark Johnson, a sports psychologist, states, “The act of paddling out into the surf and facing the power of the waves can be intimidating, but it provides a platform for personal growth. By gradually pushing their limits, surfers develop emotional resilience and a belief in their ability to overcome obstacles.”
In the words of professional surfer Mick Fanning, “Surfing has taught me to appreciate the power of the ocean and my own inner strength. It has made me more resilient, both mentally and emotionally.” The combination of achieving personal goals, cultivating adaptability, overcoming fears, and experiencing the surge of positive emotions associated with riding a wave contributes to the development of emotional resilience in surfers, creating a sense of joy, fulfilment, and increased self-esteem, ultimately leading to improved emotional well-being.

Connecting with ourselves and the Natural World

Scientific research has also shed light on how surfing promotes mindfulness and presence by engaging surfers in a state of heightened awareness. The process of catching a wave requires surfers to attune themselves to the subtle shifts in the ocean’s energy, allowing them to anticipate the ideal moment to paddle and propel themselves forward. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, this constant attunement to the environment and the need for precise timing result in a state of flow – which is characterized by complete absorption in the present moment – where their actions become effortless, and the boundaries between themselves and the world blur. This dissolution of the self can in turn lead to a profound spiritual experience, where surfers feel deeply connected to something greater than themselves. Dr Rebecca Parker, a psychologist specialising in mindfulness and sports psychology, explains, “Surfing demands a deep connection with the ocean and a keen observation of its patterns. Surfers learn to read the waves, anticipate their movements, and respond accordingly. In doing so, they enter a state of flow where their attention is fully immersed in the present experience.”
Besides this transcendental experience, the beauty of the surrounding environment also contributes to the spiritual benefits of surfing. The visual spectacle and raw power of the ocean, the vastness of the horizon, and the vibrant colours of the sky during sunrise or sunset create a sense of awe and wonder. Awe, defined as an overwhelming sense of reverence or admiration, has been linked to various psychological and physiological benefits, with research suggesting that merely spending time in natural environments and feeling awe can expand one’s perception of time, promote interconnectedness, and enhance overall well-being. In addition, this meditative aspect of surfing is compounded by the physical exertion involved in paddling and riding waves, which helps release endorphins. This, combined with the immersive nature of the experience, allows surfers to escape the distractions and mental noise of their daily lives, promoting mental clarity and an enhanced sense of overall well-being. Professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, who overcame significant challenges after losing her arm in a shark attack, shares her perspective: “When I’m out in the lineup, waiting for the next set to come in, I let go of everything else. It’s just me, the board, and the ocean. In those moments, I find a sense of peace and mindfulness. I’m fully present, and all my worries seem to fade away.”

A Sense of Community and Connection

Surfing serves as a social activity that brings people together, transcending cultural and social barriers. The lineup, where surfers wait for their turn to catch a wave, acts as a natural meeting point. It serves as a space where individuals from diverse backgrounds converge, bonded by their shared love for riding waves. This convergence fosters a sense of camaraderie, as surfers engage in conversations, share tips and tricks, and express their enthusiasm for the sport. These interactions build a supportive and inclusive environment, promoting a sense of belonging and connection among surfers and leading to greater emotional and psychological well-being. Professional surfer Sally Fitzgibbons, in an interview with The Inertia, explained how surfing has helped her build connections with other surfers and foster a sense of community. She said, “Surfing has given me a huge sense of community and a sense of belonging. It’s a shared passion that we all have, and it’s really cool to be able to share that with people from all over the world.”
Furthermore, the surf community offers a unique platform for learning and skill development. Novice surfers can benefit from the expertise of experienced riders, who are often willing to share their knowledge and provide guidance. This mentorship dynamic not only enhances the learning process but also strengthens the sense of community. Research by Anderson and colleagues (2019) has shown that shared experiences and the exchange of information in the surf community create a sense of cohesion and solidarity among its members. Another study conducted by White and colleagues (2021) revealed that individuals who engage in regular surfing reported higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness, and overall well-being, and that the sense of belonging to a supportive community contributes to these positive outcomes, as surfers find comfort and support in the presence of their peers. As Sally Fitzgibbons puts it, “It’s a really special community, and I feel really lucky to be a part of it.”
Surfing is far more than a thrilling sport—it is a transformative journey that nourishes the mind, body, and soul. Whether it’s mindfulness and stress reduction, the mental health benefits, the connection with nature, the development of resilience, or the sense of community, this ancient art form has a transformative effect on individuals; something special that continues to captivate people across the globe. Through the act of riding waves, surfers find solace, joy, and a renewed sense of purpose. So whether you are drawn to the sport for its physical challenges, seeking peace and/or relief in the embrace of the ocean, or searching for a deeper connection with the natural world, surfing offers a pathway to positively impact every aspect of your being.
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