In January, we introduced the social media phenomenon “View From My Window,” a Facebook Group that gained popularity as COVID-related quarantines locked the world’s citizens behind closed doors. The group is made up of over 2.2 million members who have posted pictures of their inside-out views during lockdown. That’s a pretty phenomenal number of users, especially when you consider there are more than 10 million Facebook groups vying for attention. This begs the question: why has the “View From My Window” group been so successful?
One answer is that there is a deep psychological desire to share content online. A famous study from 2011, conducted by The New York Times Customer Insight Group, identified five reasons why online users share content:
- To reveal valuable and entertaining content to others.
- To define themselves to others.
- To grow and nourish relationships.
- For self-fulfillment.
- To get the word out about brands and causes they like or support.
Beyond the motivation, the why, the same study revealed that family photos and videos, the what, make up 80 percent of users’ posts. If you scroll through the “View from My Window” (VFMW) Facebook group, this is exactly what you see — breathtaking, window-framed, first-person glimpses of a user’s very personal world view. They show shorelines and mountains, fields and forests, sunrises and sunsets. Of course, they also show back alleys with dumpsters, brick walls, and the windows of adjacent buildings. Both kinds of views, whether filled with grandeur or grit, are equally powerful because they connect viewers to users in an intimate way. Interestingly, as the pandemic persisted, the VFMW photos chronicled the passage of time — sunny summer vistas, the colors of autumn and dark winter nights.
So, clearly, the popularity of the site may be as simple as saying it performs a social function, allowing us to connect with others and enjoy a glimpse into their lives. But there’s also evidence demonstrating that the view from your window matters for a different reason: that it can positively affect mental and physical health.
The Science Behind the Views: Historical Perspectives
Since the 1970s, many researchers have explored the positive impact of windows on cognition and wellbeing. The paper “A Room with a View: A Review of the Effects of Windows on Work and Well-Being,” by K. Farley and Jennifer Veitch, summarizes studies that have measured ways that windows, particularly those with views of nature, can have an impact on both mind and body.
Many of these studies focused on the concept of restoration, which refers to the recovery of attention and energy after a time of mental stress or fatigue. For example, R. S. Ulrich argued that exposure to natural environments immediately following a stressful situation or encounter led to physiological, emotional and attention restoration. In Ulrich’s Stress Recovery Theory (SRT), natural settings provide a far greater restorative effect than urban settings, and he described these natural settings as restorative environments.
R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan offered a slightly different take on restoration. Their research, which contributed to the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), explained how natural environments are restorative because the involuntary attention they engender requires no effort on the part of the perceiver. Essentially, according to their theory, urban environments drain our energy because of the extent of sensory activity that demands attention, perhaps triggering our innate need to monitor for possible dangers. In natural environments, those distractions aren’t there.
In both theories, natural environments are more restorative than urban or artificial environments, but they differ in what drives restoration: in SRT, it is physiological stress; in ART, it is mental fatigue. Either way, one could easily apply these theories to “A View From My Window.” The photos showing views of nature provide a restorative effect on visitors who see them. For people who are exposed to these views daily, they presumably receive a large restorative effect with little effort. For people who aren’t exposed to these views daily (i.e., they only see alleyways with dumpsters or brick walls), they get to enjoy the natural beauty provided by other members of the group and, as a result, benefit from restoration.
In addition to studies focused on cognitive health, Farley and Veitch also include research that explores how views of nature can be physically therapeutic. In a nine-year study of gallbladder surgery patients in a hospital in Pennsylvania, the aforementioned Ulrich found that patients exposed to natural views recovered faster than their counterparts. The patients underwent the same surgery and had identical rooms, but the patients who had rooms facing brick walls took, on average, a day longer for recovery.
These patients reported a higher incidence of pain and depression. Meanwhile, the patients who had views of trees often only needed one dose of strong pain medication and felt ready to go home sooner.
The Science Behind the Views: Recent Perspectives
More recent findings may offer additional insights. In a 2020 study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers set out to see if individuals who changed their location during the day had better emotional well-being. Their metric was roaming entropy, or RE, which is a quantitative measure of experiential diversity. They conducted geolocation tracking on 130 human participants in New York and Miami, tracking their movement continuously for three to four months.
What they found was that daily variability in physical location was associated with increased positive affect in study participants. But they didn’t stop there. They also performed a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) scan in approximately half of the participants at the end of the geolocation tracking period. This revealed that the emotional well-being related to changes in one’s spatial environment was stronger for individuals who exhibited greater functional coupling of the hippocampus and striatum.
The hippocampus plays a critical role in memory formation and storage, as well as connecting certain sensations and emotions to memories. The striatum is one of the principal components of the basal ganglia and is most frequently associated with movement and mediating rewarding experiences. This research suggests that there is a specific hippocampal–striatal circuit that enables individuals to feel even better as they change their physical location.
Of course, visitors to the “View From My Window” Facebook group aren’t actually changing physical locations. But they are changing locations in their minds as they scroll through the VFMW feed. Given the right brain physiology, that might be enough to feel good simply by looking at images snapped by users from all over the world.
Does the Science Explain the Phenomenon?
None of the studies cited in above review explored how digital images might convey the benefits of being in a room with the window and scenery the photos depict, but it may explain why people were so drawn to the Facebook group. Limited to the views that their protective isolation allowed, many found comfort in the diversity of natural landscapes shared by others. With mental health issues increasing for many people around the world, getting this breath of fresh air, so to speak, can only help.
Check back for a future blog exploring how sharing the view from your window can build community.