Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Surfing and well-being

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Surfing and well-being
What is the effect of surfing on subjective and psychological well-being and why?
Figure 1. Surfing can positively impact a persons[grammar?] well-being.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever surfed before or been in the ocean? Have you ever noticed how you might feel more calm or relaxed whilst in the water or surfing? Do you know a surfer and have noticed how they always seem to have a positive view on life and seem to enjoy time in the moment? If you have ever gone surfing you would notice the feelings of joy and calm that you experience being out in the ocean and how time just flies by. If you know a surfer, or have ever gone down to the beach and seen surfers by the coast, you would see that they have a positive outlook on life, are very relaxed and just seem to be at peace with life. It has often been said that surfing and the ocean have this peaceful and positive effect on people, which is why it has started to become a very popular therapy to help increase peoples well-being. Surfing has actually already been prescribed by doctors, as many research articles have found it to have a positive effect on well-being, especially in people with mental health disorders. This chapter will further look at why surfing has this impact on well-being, especially in patients that have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and autism.

Focus questions
  • What is subjective and psychological well-being?
  • How does surfing impact a persons well-being?
  • How does surfing effect people suffering from PTSD?
  • How does surfing impact a person diagnosed with autism?

Surfing[edit | edit source]

Surfing is a fun and challenging activity that engages both the mind and body. Whilst surfing has many physical benefits such as building muscle, increasing your balance, good cardiovascular fitness for your heart and lungs, it has an even greater effect on your mind. It has a Zen-like effect that soothes the mind and balances your emotions. The ocean is a different world and an environment far removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Surfing has been described as a transcendent, near-spiritual experience[factual?]. Being able to be so close with nature is a major draw-card. Many surfers have a positive view of life{fact}}. Many of them will say that surfing heals{fact}}. Surfers have learned that ‘being in the moment’ is a mental prerequisitie[spelling?] of the sport. Surfers become more self-aware by riding the waves[factual?]. The activity forces them to connect with their bodies, identify their limitations and acknowledge their strengths. Becoming more self-aware can build confidence and help indiviudals[grammar?] increase their emotional intelligence. Lastly, surfing brings people together. One of the joys of surfing is being part of a community of like-minded individuals that come together in the lineup to enjoy riding the waves. Making friends, much like exercise, also has a lot of emotional and mental benefits such as reducing stress by giving you a sense of belonging, self-worth as well as confidence. Surfing can positively increase a persons well-being.

Well-being is a multidimensional conceptualisation of psychological health consisting of two broad categories:

Subjective Well-being[edit | edit source]

Subjective well-being is a global term used to describe how people feel about their lives and is based on an emotional reaction and cognitive judgement. It encompasses a persons[grammar?] overall satisfaction with life alongside the balance of positive and negative emotions a person feels over time. Subjective well-being (SWB) refers to the various types of evaluations, both positive and negative that people make in their lives (Diener, 2006). It includes two distinct components: cognitive evaluations and affective reactions. There is always a balance between positive affect and negative affect. Positive affect refers to the pleasant moods or emotions a person will experience such as joy or happiness. Negative affect includes emotions or moods that are unpleasant such as sadness, stress and frustration. A person is said to have high SWB if they evaluate their life positively and experience frequent joy in their life- also known as positive affect. A person is said to have low SWB if they are dissatisfied with life, and therefore experience little joy and affection and experience frequent negative affect.

Psychological Well-being[edit | edit source]

Psychological well-being involves the experiences of psychological growth and the fulfilment of human potential. The psychological well-being perspective focuses on eudaemonic well-being, which is the fulfilment of human potential and a meaningful life (Chen, Jing, Hayes & Min Lee, 2012). It involves the perceived thriving in the face of existing challenges of life, such as pursuing meaningful goals, growing and developing as a person, and establishing quality ties to others. There are six dimensions of psychological well-being, these are;

  1. Self-acceptance (positive evaluation of oneself)
  2. Environmental mastery (continued growth and development as a person)
  3. Purpose in life (believes one life is purposeful and meaningful)
  4. Positive relations with others (positive friendships or relationships)
  5. Personal growth (the capacity to manages ones[grammar?] life and the surrounding world effectively)
  6. Autonomy (a sense of self-determination)

The impact of Surfing on well-being[edit | edit source]

Fuchs and Somer (2007) conducted a qualitative research study aiming to explore and understand surfers and the role that surfing plays in their lives. In-depth semi structured interviews were individually conducted with 11 surfers. What has emerged from this study is that surfing is captivating, possibly even 'addictive'. Surfers even seem to enjoy the activity whether the conditions are favourable or not, good or bad, they will go out and surf because it makes them feel good whether they catch a lot of waves or only a few. The greater majority of the surfers interviewed for this research stated that surfing is perceived to be a crucial anchor in life. They are often unable to conceptualise it as a simple recreational activity and surfers often derive central aspects of their self-concept and identity from surfing. Surfing was reported to be one aspect that can return the individuals sense of balance in the face of stressful internal responses to external demands.

A study by Godfrey, Devine-Wright & Taylor (2015) evaluated a six-week surfing intervention conducted by the Wave Project, which aimed to boost well-being and confidence among 84 young people aged 8 to 18 years, all of whom faced mental health issues or social exclusion. Clients attended a free course of six weekly surfing sessions, usually for 10 clients and led by surf instructors. Courses were carefully constructed to bring clients out of their comfort zone and get them focused on positive experiences.The intervention resulted in a significant and sustained increase in well-being. Categorical data showed that clients felt better (96%), happier (98%), had fun (99%), all well-being measures showed statistically significant change after the intervention and the effects were very robust. Parents and referrers noticed an increase in positive attitude and better communication. Positive functioning, resilience, self-esteem and confidence, happiness, fun, friendship, and experiencing (and achieving) a new active hobby were strongly represented. One year later, 70% of clients regularly attend a surf club, which is still associated with the Wave Project, which shows that surfing has a long-lasting impact on well-being. It is concluded that the Wave Project provides a demonstrable and cost- effective way to deliver mental health care and mentoring. Well-being was promoted by participation in surfing, a physically challenging outdoor activity experienced with other people in a friendly, supported and fun way.    

The authors from the Wave Project report seven factors that interact and motivate a change among the individuals of the target population from surfing;

  1. The sea provides a restorative environment
  2. Individuals feel a connection with nature when they are in or by the sea
  3. Surfing guarantees a sensory experience that assists in learning and promoting resilience
  4. A culture of acceptance that allows young people to feel included
  5. Recognition and positive reinforcement that helps in the development of a positive self-concept and self –esteem
  6. The existence of people with reference models proved to be beneficial
  7. Regular contact between instructors and participants led to the building of trust and fostered learning.

Surfing as a social network[edit | edit source]

Being connected to others in social networks is a protective factor that improves the chance of leading ahealthy[spelling?] and successful life. One of the ways in which social networks and time spent playing in natural envionrments[spelling?] can enhance well-being is through fostering a sense of belonging and identity. Surfing is characterised by having its own language, rules and values which contribute to the development of self-identities (Devine-Wright & Godfrey, 2018). Surfing is a great way to meet new people. The surfing community is tight-knit, but it is also inclusive. Being welcomed into a group of new friends can give individuals a sense of belonging, which can make them feel more relaxed and boost their self-confidence.

Surfing can impact the brain[edit | edit source]

The crashing waves actually produce negative ions, which increases the flow of oxygen to the brain, leading to mental sharpness and more mental energy (Drughi, 2018). They are natures[grammar?] anti-depressant, boosting your mood, which increases your well-being, triggering the release of serotonin in the brain and promoting the activity of alpha brainwaves[factual?]. Surfing actually quiets the frontal lobes and increases alpha and theta brainwave activity, which are associated with the state of flow[factual?]. This leads to peak performance and increased awareness, as well as deep relaxation and quieting of the mind. Surfing forces you to direct your thoughts to the present moment, clearing your mind. Surfers experience dissociative states, similar to those experienced by lifelong meditation pracitioners[spelling?][factual?].

Surfing as a physical activity[edit | edit source]

Physical activity can operate as a protective buffer, acting as a resource to protect and maintain subjective well-being.The scientific explanation points towards the brains production of endorphins, the humans bodys[grammar?] natural pain reliever. Combining physical activity with natural environments builds on the notion that contact with nature might yield benefits for well-being. Researchers have suggested that contact with nature can replenish depleted cognitive attention (Hartig & Staats, 2006) and can help cultivate feelings of vitality and well-being. Surfing might facilitate well-being in ways that a clinical or medical model approach is unable to cater for. It has been well documented that physical activity has a positive impact, not only on an individuals physical well-being, but also on one’s psychological state. This is known as exercise-induced affect (EIA) and is often composed of positive affect, negative affect, tranquility[spelling?] and fatigue. It has been long believed by surfers that positive affect is increased and that negative affect is decreased following a bout of surfing. A study by Pittsinger and Crussemeyer (2017) examined the effect of a single 30 minute surfing session on EIA in 107 adult volunteers. EIA is This study found that EIA was significantly altered by surfing, with significant improvements in positive affect and tranquility[spelling?], and significant reductions in negative affect and fatigue.

Video Break

Check out this quick video on the work of funded Surf Therapy by the NHS (BBC World)

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder[edit | edit source]

There are several research studies that have focused on the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by using the ocean and surfing. It has been found that surfing can help increase well-being in persons suffering from PTSD by decreasing the feelings of anxiety and increasing the feelings of pleasure and joy. The purpose of the research article by Caddick, Smith & Phoenix (2015) was to explore how surfing could influence well-being among a group of combat veterans experiencing PTSD. The study included 15 men who had been diagnosed with PTSD who completed nine weeks of twice-weekly surf camps. The research was conducted by using semi-structured interviews and participant observation. The results of this study showed that surfing can increase the well-being in individuals who suffer from PTSD. One way in which surfing worked to facilitate respite from PTSD was by keeping the individual focused on the present. One of the statements by the participants was that it helped them stay focused on experiences in the present and avoid dwelling on the traumatic memories hidden in their past. Going surfing enabled the participants to be in the present, and not the memories of the past enter their thoughts. The effects of surfing on PTSD has been more related to subjective well-being rather then to psychological well-being. Surfing was stated as a vehicle for pursuing pleasure and escaping pain rather then for the notions of psychological growth and development with the veterans stating how the activity of surfing evoked in them feelings of pleasure and joy. The interviewer asked one veteran 'And what do you think it is about surfing that's so good and makes you feel that way?', and the veteran stated 'Well, it's the atmosphere, the surroundings, and also the sound I suppose, as well of the waves, because that is used for relaxation. It calms you, helps you calm down. You are just focused on your waves and your board.'

A navy study that was led by clinical psychologist Kristen Walter, analysed questionnaires that service members answered before, during, and after a program of surfing, one day a week for six weeks (Perry, 2018). The initial results from the 14 active-duty sailors who have been diagnosed with PTSD, have shown to have a decrease in insomnia and feelings of anxiety. There was also a decline in an overall negative view of life. This study, which only began in 2017 will continue to study patients with PTSD to observe whether improvements in their mental outlook have been long-lasting.

Surfing has been shown to help individuals who suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder and Autism.

Autism[edit | edit source]

Autism is an invisible disability. Children with autism especially have difficulties forming meaningful relationships with their peers. These difficiculties can lead to social isolation which can also impact social, emotional and cognitive development, their self-esteem, and in turn their well-being. Learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often present with ongoing social communication problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others and limited interests. There symptoms can have a huge impact on home life, and also school performance as well. Waves for Change (2017) did an internal research study of their surf therapy programme piloted with a group of learners with ASD. The learners went to the learn-to-surf program once a week for 10 weeks and from this study, a number of key outcomes were found amongst the participants. This included more confidence, improved social interaction with their peers and adults, an increase in communication initiation- they were happy to start the conversation and ask questions, and improvement in peer relationships.

Organisations using surfing[edit | edit source]

There are many organisations and foundations that are aware of the many health benefits of surfing and the ocean, and how this can help people affected by mental health issues. Listed below are just a couple of the many organisations around the world that run programs involving surfing and the ocean to help people increase their physical and mental well-being, and have seen the benefits.

OneWave[edit | edit source]

OneWave is a non-profit surf community tackling mental health issues with saltwater therapy and surfing. Once a week, OneWave holds fluro Friday sunrise sessions at beaches around the world and go surfing. OneWave believes that it doesn't matter if you are riding a wave for the first time or for the hundredth time, you will never forget the feeling of being on a wave and letting everything go with a massive smile on your face.

Waves of Wellness[edit | edit source]

Waves of Wellness Foundation is a mental health surf therapy charity, committed to changing lives by delivering innovative programs for people experiencing mental health challenges. The Waves of Wellness surfing experience is an eight week evidence based learn-to-surf program. The main focus of the program is to introduce surfing to the participants as a way to improve physical health, mental health and well-being in a neutral, non-intrusive environment. The program uses ocean and surfing to stimulate and facilitate positive therapy outcomes.

Wave Project[edit | edit source]

The Wave Project started in 2010 as a voluntary group that was aimed to use volunteers to provide surfing lessons for young people with mental health issues as a way of getting them outside and feeling confident within themselves. It wasn't until the first pilot study showed that going surfing once a week helped the young people feel more confident, improved their outlook on life and gave them a sense of fun that the Wave Project became a non-profit company. The Wave Project is a surfing intervention that promotes confidence through surfing and the sea. It provides a six-week course of one-to-one surfing support for clients aged 8 to 21 in a group setting. A follow-on surf club enables clients to continue their surfing and progress to become volunteer helpers and surf-mentors. Specific targets for achievement are not set, and it is a chance to forget rather then focus on problems. The Wave Project now has many locations across the United Kingdom and is commonly referred to for patients by professionals such as doctors, counsellors and support workers.  

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Here are some questions to test your understanding of surfing and wellbeing!  Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 What are the 2 main disorders that surfing has been proven to improve?

Psychosis and Personality Disorder
PTSD and Eating Disorder
Conduct Disorder and Substance-related Disorder
PTSD and Autism

2 How long does a typical Waves of Wellness learn-to-surf program go for?

1 week
8 weeks
4 weeks
6 weeks

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Surfing is a fun, challenging activity that engages both the body and the mind. Most surfers or people that are always near the ocean always seem to be calm, relaxed and take life how it is. It has been said that there is a positive relationship between surfing and both subjective and psychological well-being. Research evidence is quite small is number, but it has been found that surfing does increase subjective well-being and can decrease feelings of anxiety, help get rid of negative thoughts, decrease social isolation and improve positive life satisfaction. Surfing has also been found to help individuals dealing with mental health issues. The two main mental health disorders that have been studied are Post - Traumatic Stress Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Individuals who suffer from one of these disorders and took part in the research studies were found to improve their well-being significantly and became better communicators, were able to stay in the moment longer, and had more confidence. Surfing has been long celebrated as a way to soothe the mind and invigorate the body, but scientific evidence has been limited. There is still a need for increase research into this area of surfing and the water and its effects on persons, especially people suffering from mental health disorders. Most of the research has been semi-structured interviews and participant observation, so to further increase the knowledge and the scientific evidence of WHY surfing positively effects both subjective and psychological well-being, there needs to be more quantitative data and maybe even looking at what happens to the brain when someone is surfing or out in the ocean.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Caddick, N., Smith, B., & Phoenix, C. (2015). The effects of surfing and the natural environment on the well-being of combat veterans. Qualitative Health Research, 25 (1), 76-86.

Chen, F., Jing, Y., Hayes, A., & Min Lee, J. (2012). Two concepts or two approaches? A bifactor analysis of psychological and subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies. Retrieved from

Devine- Wright, H., & Godfrey, C. (2018). Surf therapy: the long-term impact.

Diener, E. (2006). Guidelines for national indicators of subjective well-being and ill- being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 397-404.

Drughi, O. (2018). Your brain on Surfing. Retrieved from

Fuchs, O., & Schomer, H. (2007). Beyond sport: a thematic analysis of surfing. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 29 (2), 11-25.

Godfrey, C., Devine-Wright, H., & Taylor, J. (2015). The positive impact of structured surfing courses on the wellbeing of vulnerable young people. Community Practitioner, 88 (1), 9-26.

Hartig, T., & Staats, H. (2006). The need for psychological restoration as a determinant of environmental preferences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 26 (3), 215-226.

Perry, T. (2018). Surfing could help tackle PTSD, depression, and sleep problems, study finds. Independent. Retrieved from

Pittsinger, R., Kress, J., & Crussemeyer, J. (2017). The effect of a single bout of surfing on exercise-induced affect. International Journal of Exercise Science, 10 (7), 989-999.

Waves for Change. (2017). Extending waves for change's reach to learners with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Giving differently-abled children access to surf therapy. Retrieved from

External Links[edit | edit source]