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Sailing positively is a negative ion generator of happiness

2017 January 1

We were with some friends for dinner recently, and I noticed our hostess had put a small plastic box on a shelf near the table and plugged it in so it faced our meal. Asking what it was, I received a breezy, “Oh, it’s just a negative ion generator.”

I had a meeting with a yacht broker not long afterwards and, lo and behold, there was the same little plastic box on his office desk. This time, I pursued the question and his answer was that negative ions had changed his life at work. “I used to drag all day and would get 3 p.m. fatigue, but the negative ion generator really energizes me.” 

It all sounded like electronic snake oil to me but, in the interest of science, I checked out negative ions and, to my surprise, found that they not only work but have a direct impact on readers of this magazine.


Here’s the deal for those of you (like me) who weren’t paying attention in school. Ions are molecules in the air that have either gained or lost an electrical charge. Tasteless, odorless and invisible, studies have shown that they can affect how you feel. 


Positive ions are the bad guys that cause you to feel drowsy, unmotivated, and depressed. Nothing positive about them at all.


Negative ions reverse those feelings, according to ion researchers at Columbia University and, when they reach your bloodstream, they produce a biochemical reaction that increases the levels of the mood chemical serotonin. In short, they boost your energy, relieve stress, and generally create a more euphoric state of mind.

This shouldn’t surprise you, but those bad positive ions are found by the gazillions in homes and offices. Air conditioners create them, just as computers and other grounded devices from fax machines to printers. Your boss probably spews positive ions.

Negative ions, on the other hand, are created when air molecules break apart due to sunlight and moving air and water. Start to see where we’re going here?

If you check out your local Bed, Bath & Beyond or Target, you’ll find shelves of “negative ion generators” for hundreds of bucks just like our hostess and the broker use, and which are intended to perk you up at home or office. 

So should you buy one of these machines?

Nah. Just go sailing!

Researchers have found one of the major producers of negative ions is splashing water, such as your bow wave. You already have your very own negative ion generator. It’s your boat.

Negative ions are created by the motion of water, fresh or salt, and they surround you when you’re aboard your boat. Researchers have found that people are much happier when they are on a beach, near a waterfall or a burbling stream. Or just sailing along.

I don’t need clinical trials to know that I feel much better when I’m on my boat. I’ve never really thought about it particularly, but I know that I’m at my best when I’m sailing, especially when it’s breezy, the sun is bright and the spray is flying. 

On the other hand, I realize that my lawn generates those nasty positive ions, especially when it’s time to mow it. The eaves that need to be painted are another positive ion generator, as are household projects such as washing dishes or cleaning the garage.

Researchers who have measured homes and offices have found that some register a flat zero when it comes to those happy-making negative ions. No surprise. 

“The action of pounding surf creates negative air ions and we also see it immediately after spring thunderstorms when people report lightened moods,” said one Columbia University professor. 

I’m usually dismayed when an afternoon sail is interrupted by a spring thunderstorm, but I’m going to modify my behavior to love it. I’ll turn my face to the rain like a little sunflower, sucking in all those negative ions like a legal drug.

He also found that people with winter and chronic depression respond as well to negative ions as to antidepressants and, as he added, “There are relatively no side effects.”

I now know why it is that, when I can’t use my boat in the winter, I suffer serious depression and anxiety but, as the researcher suggested, the application of some salt spray and an afternoon breeze filled with negative ions can wipe out that depression. Remember how good that first sail of the season always feels? I don’t know about you, but if I were a dog, I’d wag my tail.

I admit that I was put off by the researchers use of the word “relatively” because it seemed an unnecessary qualifier, like those television commercials for medications that are always followed by warnings that relatively few users of that drug have turned into serial killers or nymphomaniacs. But I am aware that negative ions are not a medication to be fooled with lightly. I’m old enough to know that all wonderful things often have a down side. 

In this case, I know that going sailing to improve my spirits with a dose of negative ions while I leave the front lawn to become an unruly carpet of weeds will cause She Who Must Be Obeyed to become a cloud of positive ions all by herself. 

So I need to be very careful about using my newfound knowledge. Simply walking out the door with a sailbag over my shoulder in the middle of a weekend or when relatives are due shortly is never a good idea. But perhaps I should say to SWMBO, “Honey, I really need to recharge my negative ions before I see Aunt Edna.” It might just work.

You’ll have to make up your own excuses for getting your negative ions.