lake purple sunset

“What’s your favorite lake?” I asked my Facebook friends a few weeks ago. Since it wasn’t a selfie (why do these always generate the most attention?) I wasn’t expecting much in terms of response. Thirty comments later, two things became clear: simplicity wins on social media, and people really love lakes.

I am one of those people. One of my favorite childhood memories is camping on the shores of Cliff and Wade Lakes near Yellowstone National Park, where the translucent, pristine water seems to spring directly from the rocks along its shore. Another time, we climbed through the rainforest, descended a rickety set of stairs, and found ourselves on the edge of Lake Chicabal, a Guatemalan lake shrouded in mist and adorned with floral offerings.


Lake Chicabal | Photo: Mariah Ore

Unlike other vacations, it isn’t the excitement that draws me to these lakes in my memory, but rather, the calm stasis that seems to elude my daily life. Something about being in a canoe in the middle of a gently-rippling, naturally-occurring body of freshwater is comforting, life-affirming, and grounding. What is it that makes lakes so special?


The Human-Environment Feedback Loop

It makes sense that we are particularly sensitive to our environments. “Our brain and our nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are constantly interacting,” points out an article from University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. The resulting tendency to notice and internalize the stress of our environments is ultimately a side effect of the alertness that has allowed for human survival over thousands of years.

lake purple sunset

Image via Pixabay under license CC0

Just as widely-accepted is the understanding that the human brain responds positively to natural environments. A 2010 study found that just spending time in nature — independent of physical activity — was enough to enliven and energize test subjects.

lake chicabal guatemala

Lake Chicabal, Guatemala | Photo: Mariah Ore


Pick Your Nature, Pick Your Mood

With the above research as a basis, another inference seems logical: not all natural environments are created equal. Or rather, different natural environments can have different effects on our moods. A Norwegian study investigating the use of natural environments for emotional regulation confirms a positive association between the two — but also records unique responses from subjects presented with different environmental types.

luner lake

Image via Pixabay under license CC0

In the study, Johnston and Rydstedt write that “a natural environment showing water and greenery was rated more positively than a natural environment showing a dark forest.” This could be a result of garden-variety emotional projection — favoring lighter, airier atmospheres over darker ones — but it could also be the result of a natural instinct of which we aren’t consciously aware. According to the study, it may actually be that “the underlying relevance of natural environments may be clearer to us, as evolutionary analyses have suggested.”

guatemala lake

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala | Photo: Mariah Ore


For a Stabilizing Vacation, Visit a Lake

There are so many awe-inspiring, majestic, and activity-oriented natural environments that fill different energetic needs in our lives. From the top of a mountain, you can see the miles of our world spread around you — this might cause you to feel power. Floating down a river on a raft or inner tube, you can channel the energy of running water. Next to an ocean, you can feel humbled, watching the sun disappear into an endless horizon.

sunset on lake

Image via Pixabay under license CC0

By the same token, perhaps it is the abundance embodied by lakes, with their softly wavering menisci of fresh, drinkable (if treated) water, that comforts us. Sitting at the water’s edge, you may not feel excited. You may not even feel awestruck. But instead, you may find another sort of experience, one whose presence in our lives is even more rare: calmness.

Even if you spend your lake time boating, camping, barbecuing, or sailing, proximity to the ever-present lake water can still provide the soothing benefits of an instinctive appreciation for the fertility of the natural world. Sometimes, it’s the quiet things that allow us to recharge year after year as we reflect on their beauty.