The science of why I love scenic views when we travel

On my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I spent an inordinate amount of time simply staring out the window of our apartment.

We were up fairly high and had a view towards the KL Tower, some of the rainforest that surrounds it, and many varied skyscrapers. There was always something going on, but it wasn’t necessarily the changing lights on the tower or the workers coming out for smoko on office building balconies that caught my attention – as much as I love feeling like I’m spying on what everyone’s doing – it was really just the feeling that I could see for miles and the view was, well, big.

View from my hotel apartment in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

What’s all this about big views?

Of course, this is not the first time I’ve enjoyed looking at a window on my holidays and after asking around it also turns out I’m not alone with this feeling.

Part of what I like about a big view is the feeling that staring out at it expands my mind somehow. Reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel for the Thoughtful Travellers Book Club had me come across a pearl of wisdom that seemed to explain this:

Journeys are the midwives of thought … there is an almost quaint correlation between what is in front of our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views.

Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, p.57

I had many a “large thought” while staring out of my Kuala Lumpur apartment window, and casting my mind back to some of the most inspiring, creative moments on my travels, I quickly remembered other “large views” which prompted such deep thinking: looking across the incredible Icelandic landscape from the balcony of my cabin at the foot of Mt Kirkjufell; the view to Nijo Castle from our Airbnb in Kyoto; what I could see outside my cabin window along the Trans-Siberian railway; even, more recently, my view across the pool and the sea in Cairns from my room in the Riley Hotel. I often find travel inspires new thoughts and ideas, but never more so than when I have a view to indulge.

View from our Airbnb in Kyoto, Japan to Nijo Castle

Ever curious (it’s a curse, let me tell you), I wondered why this was so, beyond de Botton’s fitting idea of large thoughts needing large views. Science tells me that it actually dates back to prehistoric times: zoologist GH Orians talks of “Savannah Theory” which basically means that for evolutionary reasons – the fact that we wanted to see the sabre-toothed tiger coming – humans are wired to prefer savannah-like environments with big views. Makes sense, right?

Are views of nature the best views?

Now, although I did love the view over Kuala Lumpur, if I had to rate the views I’ve experienced over the years, the ones over nature would come out on top. Research says plenty about how our mood, happiness and general sense of wellbeing increases when we’re looking at nature.

View from my cabin in Kirkjufell, western Iceland – late at night in summer!

A study by British and American academics that was published in Nature last year decided that as we’d expect: happiness is greater in “more scenic locations”. Another study by the same academics reported that “inhabitants of more scenic environments report better health”, too – and I feel sure that corresponds to travellers who stay in scenic environments, too, probably even more so, because of the novelty factor.

So, should you seek out places to stay with amazing views?

Well, obviously, I think the answer is yes. I’ve not necessarily been proactive about it before – some people will ask for a hotel room with a specific view – though I’m easily swayed by an Airbnb or apartment rental that clearly has a good view attached.

I discovered that having hotel rooms without windows is a bit of a trend lately – the hotels say it is to help you get a great sleep because there’s no danger of natural light! – but I’m not falling for that. Give me floor-to-ceiling windows and a grand view every time. It’s good for me!

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