Watching Fish Swim: The Joys and Benefits of AquariumsJul 31, 2023 ● By Carrie Jackson
There's something meditative about observing the movement of colorful fish among swaying aquatic plants while hearing the soothing sounds of water. In our culture, where stress has run amok, the restorative ambiance created by a well-placed and properly designed aquarium may be a welcome remedy for the busyness of life.
A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that aquariums help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, lessen feelings of loneliness and serve as emotional support during mental health crises. Gazing at fish for just a few minutes every day can reduce stress, improve sleep and instill an overall sense of calm.
People have kept fish for more than 4,500 years, and since the late 1800s, the idea of marine life as pets has emerged as a popular pastime. Large public aquariums with multi-million-gallon exhibits thrill visitors around the globe, while smaller fish tanks adorn doctors’ offices, health spas, libraries and a myriad of public and professional spaces. With a little planning, the beauty and calming influence of these underwater displays can be incorporated into the home, offering a unique way to bring nature indoors, spark curiosity and teach kids valuable lessons.
Dr. Ran D. Anbar, a board-certified pediatric pulmonologist and pediatrician, has two aquariums in his waiting room in La Jolla, California. “Watching fish doesn’t require a lot of thought, and this allows the mind to settle down. It’s generally calming because the viewer’s interest is captured by the fish's unique appearances and smooth, rhythmic and repetitive navigation through water. Aquariums have been associated with improvement of mood, better pain management and blood sugar control,” says Anbar, who also offers hypnosis and counseling services to his patients.
If a child shows interest, Anbar incorporates the aquarium into his counseling sessions. “I thank them for being kind to my fish, and this helps reduce tension. Kids love feeding the fish and watching them happily eat. We talk about how the fish might feel, which helps the kids describe their own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, when children describe a fish's response, they are able to verbalize thoughts they cannot say about themselves,” he explains. “Children also like to photograph or draw the fish, and I ask them to imagine the fish’s name, origin and hobbies. This sparks creativity, and they often become interested in setting up their own aquariums after seeing them in my office.”
Maintaining an aquarium can teach kids empathy and trustworthiness. “Children learn to be responsive to their fish's needs, including how to observe the animals closely for signs of distress. Children learn to be patient and how to follow a schedule. They can learn to calm their own emotions in dealing with their fish, because otherwise the pets might become agitated,” Anbar says, urging parents to supervise their kids closely until it is clear they are able to care for the animals responsibly.
Steven Waldron, the owner of Aquarium Zen, in Seattle, Washington, helps people create artistic installations inspired by the aquarist Takashi Amano, who combined Japanese gardening techniques with the wabi-sabi principle of finding beauty in imperfection. “Aquariums are living aquatic ecosystems, and it is deeply compelling to have a slice of that biome in your home,” he says. “The very act of creating and maintaining that ecosystem taps into something instinctual and gives people structure, a sense of purpose and peace. With endless design possibilities, people are able to create a projection of their own aquatic paradise.”
To reap benefits, an aquarium need not be large or overly expensive. Waldron says that a few green plants combined with colorful fish provide the right kinetic energy to be both soothing and invigorating. “Choose fish that complement the plants and are enjoyable to watch. Siamese fighting fish, tetras, dwarf cichlids and dwarf shrimp are excellent for home aquariums. Some of these simply provide beauty and some, such as the Amano shrimp and the Otocinclus catfish, act as a cleanup crew and eat damaging algae,” he says. “Once it’s set up, routine maintenance, such as cleaning the tank and changing the water, should take less than an hour a week, and most people find caring for their aquarium to be a fulfilling and meditative task.”
While it may be tempting to put an aquarium in a bedroom, Waldron believes that can be too much energy for a space meant for slumber. “From a feng shui perspective, a dark corner of a common living space is the ideal location for an aquarium. This allows it to become the central focal point and provide light, life and positive energy,” he says. “Once you start to see natural energy flowing through the plants and animals, it becomes intuitive, and you see the connection to nature everywhere.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.