How I Successfully Escaped Work, While Still At My Desk

Photo: Collins Nai/Design: Mallory Heyer.
It's the ultimate dream: Work somewhere so close to the beach that you can skip out of the office for a few minutes to lay in the sand and unwind. Just think about how relaxed you'd feel after hearing the waves break on the shore while seagulls flew overhead.

This past week, I made that dream a reality. But I didn't book a ticket to St. Croix or even Newport. Instead, I stayed in my office chair in downtown Manhattan, laptop in front of me on my desk, and transported myself to a tropical beach — courtesy of a virtual reality headset.

Virtual reality has come a long ways from its early days of low-quality, nausea-inducing games. As the technology has evolved into something enjoyable (and affordable), more and more apps and networks are turning to the 360-degree universe to immerse viewers in their content — even this summer's Olympics is coming to headsets. You can use VR for far more than just a playfully trippy gaming experience.

While I'd tried out different VR headsets before, I'd never used one regularly. But since studies have found positive, anxiety-reducing effects from VR, I decided to test it myself: I'd see if 10 minutes of daily meditation on a "beach" could lower everyday work stresses.

Armed with a Samsung Gear VR headset and a Galaxy S7 Edge smartphone, which fits into a slot in the front of the headset, I set off for the "beach." I got there via the $3 Perfect Beach app, purchased from Google Play.

I should preface this by saying that I've tried mindfulness meditation before. In college, I worked on the practice with a therapist to decrease my stress levels and quiet the seemingly endless distractions around me. But while I eventually found other ways to calm my anxieties, my attempts at meditation felt like failures. The practice seemed to require a dedication and concentration I couldn't muster.

I wondered: Would actually seeing a beach and hearing its sounds while meditating help? After five workdays of testing, I can happily answer that question with a definitive yes.
Photo: Collins Nai/Design: Mallory Heyer.
Once I entered the Perfect Beach app, I could pick which scene I preferred (beach daytime, beach sunset, pier daytime, or pier sunset) and the musical accompaniment. I opted for beach daytime and a guided meditation with tranquil, spa-like music. Then, I arrived at my destination: There was white sand at my feet, crystal-clear blue water in the distance, palm trees swaying around me, and birds flying above.

I was ready to relax.

Each day around lunchtime, I spent 10 minutes with my headset on and my mind at the beach. Instead of closing my eyes or focusing on a single point on the wall, as I have done while meditating in the past, I took in my surroundings. I looked up at the clear, blue sky and bright sun, turned around to see the tropical bushes behind me, and watched the water lap at the sand.

I tried the guided meditation program on the first day, but found that I preferred to hear the soothing music alone, instead. When my coworker at the desk next to me tapped me, indicating that my 10 minutes were up, I felt as if I had been awoken from a pleasant seaside dream (and no, I never actually fell asleep). Even though I hadn't physically left work, when I took the headset off and returned to my laptop, I felt refreshed and recharged for the afternoon ahead.

This testing didn't come without some laughter from those around me, especially during my earliest trip to the beach. I took it in stride, laughing along with them. I did, after all, look a little ridiculous. But after that first day, my coworkers got as accustomed to it as I was, and the giggles ceased. As for me, I usually wear glasses while working at my computer, so having something else on my face didn't feel that odd (although the headset is a bit heavier than a pair of specks). Surprisingly, the headset didn't bother me at all during my meditation.

After this experience, I'm looking forward to maintaining my daily trips to the beach and trying out some other VR apps to see if they, too, provide effective escapes. And I will definitely be in the "stands" to cheer on gymnast Simone Biles this August.

I doubt that a VR experience will ever replace the joy of being on an actual beach — that would be an incredible feat. But for zero travel cost and complete convenience, the virtual experience comes at a very close, sand-filled second. At the very least, it's worth a try.

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