Looking out the Window, What Should You See?

Use science to landscape your way to a better life.

Posted Mar 16, 2018

It’s almost Spring, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, or Fall, if you live in the Southern one – the big transition date is March 20. Both seasons are great times to think about the gardens and other landscaping that you can see through your home’s or your office’s windows. Cognitive scientists have learned a lot about the sorts of views that make us happy and healthy wherever we are and high-performers at work.

Even around your home, some of you have more control of what’s outside your windows than others—if the extent of your ability to change what you see is opening or closing your blinds, and you don’t have a view of green, leafy nature, add a couple of leafy green plants to your windowsill—seeing them will boost your mood and your mental performance—and you get bonus points for using several different types of plants. Looking at leafy green plants has not only been linked to better moods and performance generally, but also to more creative thinking specifically, for example.

Research conducted around the world shows that wherever we live or are from, humans like to look at (and benefit from seeing) the same sorts of nature vistas—certain sorts of viewed scenes relax us—and being calmer is good for our blood pressure as well as how our brain is working. The stuff we benefit from looking at today filled the spaces that would have increased our chances of survival when we were a young species.

To start, calming views feature trees that we could have scampered up to see what was going on in our world and open grassy areas that would have made it easier for us to spot danger approaching.

The most preferred and relaxing views of nature include some sort of clean, fresh-appearing water element.  The advantages of ready access to water before the days of all sorts of bottled refreshments are clear. The cognitive benefits of seeing water are strong—if your home or office looks out over a courtyard or other space without much potential to support green leafy plants, try to install a fountain outside where you can see it from inside. Even a small one with gently moving water, a couple of feet high, will do the trick, particularly if you can hear the water burbling in it from inside.

Views with a few manmade elements can be relaxing. In larger areas, a meandering road or path and a field with mown grasses and a few scattered trees are desirable—think of scaling this sort of grand scene to the size of the lot as a mind-expanding and soul enriching challenge.

Desirable views have a hint of mystery. We like to understand and enjoy what is happening around us, and to imagine that if we traveled from where we are into the unknown we would meet with pleasant surprises—that’s where the meandering path comes into play.

An untamed jungle-y sort of landscape might seem to be just the sort of scenery that would help us to forget the demands imposed by civilization, but seeing it makes us tense. It was hard for our ancient ancestors to live successfully in a jungle—it is pretty difficult to see danger approaching amid the chaos.

We like nature scenes to have an assortment of green plants and flowers. Since many flowers are themselves edible, or represent the promise of fruits to come, this is easy to understand—as is our related interest in seeing signs of bird life.

If you can work something awe-inspiring into your view that’s great—being awed seems to help us to think and act more positively toward others, for example. Working in awe might involve orienting a structure toward something majestic, such as the Grand Canyon, or adding an element outside that wows because of workmanship, use of materials, or something similar. The bottom line is clear—if you’re awed, good things will result.

If all else fails, pull back your curtains and let whatever natural light comes your way inside. Daylight is a sort of nearly magical tonic for humans. Being in daylight is great for our mood, the performance of our minds, and our physical health.

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