by Mitchell Parker A $1 million view. That’s an interesting thing when you really think about it. For someone to fork over a cool million just for the opportunity to wake up to a certain landscape every day says a great deal not only about what that view might entail, but about what humans desire. A space could be small and void of character, but if it has windows that frame rolling hills or water, the value of that space skyrockets. Why?
In 1984, Roger Ulrich, now a professor of architecture at the Center for Healthcare Building Research at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, published an article in the journalScience that found a correlation between the speed of recovery of patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital with a view of nature compared with patients with a view of a brick wall. He showed that patients with the better view recovered more quickly, had fewer negative comments about nurses and took fewer potent analgesics than those with the brick wall view.
Psychology professors Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan would go on to pioneer research that shows how environments can have restorative properties. Basically, when people look at nature, it helps restock mental energy.
“Think of energy in your brain as one big pot of stuff churning around like lava,” says Sally Augustin, an applied environmental psychologist and current president of Division 34 of the American Psychology Association. For years, she has studied human’s experience with homes, workplaces and hospitals. “When doing knowledge work you deplete your mental resources, whether it’s your job or playing chess. When mental stocks come down, we get to be irritable, cognitive performance and social performance declines, and we don’t get along well with others.”
Rebuilding mental energy
But when we look at something that interests us, something that doesn’t require a lot of attention to monitor, we build back up our mental energy and our mood and performance improve. This happens when looking at nature, but also anything that produces a natural, soft fascination.
In other words, if you can zone out on something simple and soothing — not Angry Birds — your mind is able to restore calmness.
Most of this effect has to do with evolution. When early humans could observe their natural surroundings from a secure vantage point, with a clear view of any approaching danger — like lions — they could relax, feel at peace, reflect on life and make a plan for it. The same theory holds true today.
“My brain is almost exactly the same as some relative I had several thousand years ago,” Augustin says. “Our brains change so slowly that things that made us comfortable in the environment in which we evolved are comforting to us now. Watching the countryside allows us to look at our world softly, easily, and consider what might happen to us next.”
It goes back to safety
Most of this desire to be connected to nature happens unbeknownst to the homeowner. They might realize they like looking at nature and find it calming, but still have difficulty explaining why. “People paid lots of money for places with views in Roman times, before the concept was investigated in a scientific way,” Augustin says. “On some sort of primordial level, we value views.”
And just what is an ideal view for restoring our minds? Augustin says to imagine a home perched on a hill overlooking a rolling English countryside. The green landscape is pleasing to the eye and, subconsciously, your mind can see danger approaching, allowing your mind to relax, drift and replenish.
“You don’t want to be deep in a jungle setting,” she says. “That’s because danger lurks in the jungle, and you can’t see very far ahead. I like that phrase, ‘It’s a jungle out there,’ because what it means is life is stressful, like a jungle.”
Bringing in bits of that ancestral environment
Of course not everyone can live on a hill in the English countryside. But the good news is that you don’t have to. rollThe key is to find ways to re-create that ancestral environment in which we can relax and contemplate nature without feeling threatened. While the aforementioned picturesque view is ideal, there are ways to trick your mind into receiving restorative benefits from nature, even if you can’t afford a $1 million view.
Water. Augustin says that research has shown that restorative benefits can be gained even while looking at cityscapes. The only catch is there needs to be a body of water visible — a lake, pond, ocean, etc. Or, if you have a courtyard view, a water fountain can be mentally restorative, too.
Let the light in. “Sunlight is magical and does a great thing for our mood and health, so pull the drapes back and let more daylight in,” Augustin says.
Hang a picture. Adding relatively realistic landscape art — rather than abstract — can have restorative benefits too.
Add plants. You can get a psychological boost from adding plants, as long as you don’t go overboard.
You don’t want a jungle-like setting. Remember: if it’s hard to pick out danger, it will be more difficult to relax.
“In a 10 foot by 10 foot room, three or four plants is great,” Augustin says. “You get the green effect but you’re still able to survey your environment. If you have 50 plants in the same room, you’ve basically re-created a jungle.”
Play with fire. Staring into flickering flames is also restorative. “Fire has the same fascination for us as long as it’s contained and there’s no danger coming from it,” Augustin says.
Get a fish tank. If you live in a basement apartment with no windows, or only have views of a brick wall, try to invest in a fish tank. Augustin even suggests a laptop screen saver or videos of an aquarium can give you a mental boost.