Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

How Taking Selfies and These Types of Photos Can Increase Happiness and Gratitude, Decrease Stress, and Deepen Connections

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How Taking These Types of Photos and Selfies Can Increase Happiness, Decrease Stress, and Deepen Connections

For a word that didn’t even exist a decade ago, ‘selfies’ have made their way into our everyday, as though a selfie shaped space has been reserved all this time, just for them. Just try getting through a day where you don’t take a selfie, look at a selfie, or practice your selfie face (s’ok – nobody’s gonna judge – we’re all friends here).

It was inevitable, really, that selfies would eventually find their way into our lives. We humans love telling stories, we love connecting, and we love the good feels that come from likes, comments and emojis landing on our pics. And we have faces. Glorious storytelling faces that we filter or #nofilter, shield and show, just as we do with our stories.

Selfies can be fun, they can trouble, and when they belong to someone else, they can be fascinating, cringeworthy (but let’s be honest, they’re the ones we love) or massively fun little storytellers. They are the storytellers that should make us pleased to be a part of the genius that is the human race – because what other species can take a photo of themselves? It’s genius. And we humans are the only species to have mastered the art. (We are also the only species to bungee jump. Head first off bridges and cliffs and high things with our feet tied to a rope … but let’s not let get caught up in potentially contradictory details. We’re genius. And our selfie-taking capabilities prove it. Let’s stick with that.) 

If only we could use selfies beyond entertainment to make us happier, more contented, less stressed humans. Well … it turns out that being human just gets better, because a bunch of human scientists have done just that.

For anyone who has dabbled in the occasional art of the selfie, or who has taken selfie after selfie as though they’re the path to – wherever it is that magnificent paths lead (like maybe eternal youth or a bakery or something), researchers have found a way to turn up your feel goods. In a groundbreaking study, researchers from the University of California found that regularly taking selfies with your phone, and sharing the little gems with friends, can help you to feel happier, calmer, and more connected to the ones you want to be connected to. 

The study. Let’s talk about it.

The research has been published in the journal, the Psychology of Well-Being, Theory Research and Practice

 ‘Our research showed that practicing exercises that can promote happiness via smartphone picture-taking and sharing can lead to increased positive feelings for those who engage in it.’ – Lead Author Yu Chen, postdoctoral scholar, University of California.

The researchers wanted to understand the effects that taking photos would have on three areas of wellbeing:

  • self-perception (through the manipulation of positive facial expressions);
  • self-efficacy (by doing things that produce happiness);
  • pro-social (by doing things that make other people happy). 

Researchers wanted to explore how mood could be changed by smiling, giving to others, and reflection. Participants were randomly assigned to take one of three types of photos every day for four weeks. The three types of photos were:

  1. a smiling selfie;
  2. something that would make you happy;
  3. something you believe would make someone else happy (which was then sent to that someone). 

During the study, researchers collected nearly 2,900 measures of mood. All participants experienced an increase in positive moods, however the type of positive changes differed depending on what type of photo they took. 

People who took smiling selfies.

People who took selfies reported that they felt more confident and comfortable with the photos of themselves as the study progressed. 

‘If you feel good about yourself, then [a] selfie would be a way to capture that.’ – (P29)

One participant reported noticing less stress on his face and another was able to appreciate the way her photos increased in creativity. Interestingly, two participants reported that even when they faked their smiles, their mood lifted. This is supported by research that has found that faking smiles (doing the action of a smile, even if there isn’t a ‘smiley’ feeling behind it) can trigger a physiological response that increases feelings of happiness and positive mood.

‘It made me feel good, thinking, ‘this is probably how I look like for the rest of the day’ … It’s a way of telling me that I could get through the day no matter what happens.’ – (P29).

 People who took photos of things that made them happy.

Those who took photos of things that made them happy became more mindful, reflective and appreciative. They also became aware of how things around them served as important sources of happiness. A theme that came through in the study was that people became more aware of how the things they usually took for granted could be an important source of happiness for them.

‘They just opened my eyes and made me realize what makes me happy. Those are simple things that I never thought about before. Just like everyday objects and places in my room. They are places that made me content and stress-free at that time. Not big, but it does have an impact.’ – (P31).

‘Instead of going routinely and mechanically during the day, I stop and look around for something that makes me smile. I didn’t consciously do that before. I find that happiness is close to me. A lot them are my family and my pet. For my family, I didn’t think of them as a daily source of happiness. I usually took them for granted.’ – (P28)

‘They [the things around me] make me appreciate the small things in my life – things that I would normally not notice, or take for granted. There are some photos of family members, reminding me of a reason to live and making me happy. Sometimes I took pictures of my laptop. It helps me do well in school and brings a lot of convenience to my life. It made me happy. I don’t get excited, but feel grateful. It’s good that I have one.’ – (P36).

A number of participants reported that as the study progressed, they started to cherish the time with their friends and family and felt grateful for their company.

People who took photos of things that would make other people happy, and then sent them to those people.

Those who snapped photos to make someone else happy reported that they felt more connected to the people they sent the photos to. They also became calmer and reported that the connection to their friends and family helped to ease their stress.

‘People can be comforted by these sort of photos. If someone is feeling depressed, the first thing they need is connection’. – (P15).

Receiving responses from the people they sent the photos to also made them happier. Sharing photos helped them to communicate their present moment – how they were feeling, what they were working on and where they were, which helped deepen feelings of connectedness and create shared memories.

‘… Some pictures might look boring, but she was happy knowing what I was doing.’ – (P37).

What it means for all of us.

Technology is often criticised for making us too ‘automatic’, and making it easy to cruise through life without really paying full attention to the world that’s happening around us. With a little tweaking though, technology can be something that adds to our experience, rather than drains from it.

Taking selfies or photos of things that bring happiness to ourselves or others is a way to be more deliberate, and steer our focus in ways that can deepen connections, fade negative feelings such as stress, and increase positives ones such as happiness, confidence and gratitude. Life is busy, but taking a moment out now and then to be deliberate in what we notice, and consciously directing our attention towards the things that make us happy, can widen our lens and help us notice the important things that are always there, but which disguise themselves as small and unimportant for a while.

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6 Comments

Jasmin Beck

I find Selfies work on all three levels.
Yesterday, Melbourne cup day, they dressed me up and for once, I actually felt good about myself.
Two weeks ago one of the residents I am a volunteer for turned 100, and I took lots of photos of him with fay; friends and carers and he just loved them.
When we go on outings I take pictures to remember the wonderful things I have seen.

Reply
Lizzie

Really enjoyed reading this article thank you. I think it’s great to see a positive outcome for
Improving self esteem from a heavily used daily digital device.

Reply
Michele

Eek! I like seeing the positive side of selfies, but I’m afraid that research reports like this will contribute to the self-absorbed society we seem to have — in the USA, anyway! A picture is often not representative of how someone truly looks or feels. But I could see where the whole fun thing of doing a selfie could be a positive, silly kind of, boost.

Reply
Julie

Hi,I totally agree with Michele in her previous email.Its not only an obsession in the USA ,I’m posting from Ireland and it’s as bad here,when I say as bad,I observe most facebook selfies amongst those around around as validation caused by not all but a lot of low self esteem.Reason for this option is based on reports from friends over the years on certain people commenting or not commenting or liking as required! A no win situation for a sensitive disposition.

Reply
Michele

Yes, my experience too, Julie. I suppose low self-esteem is universal, so it probably does pertain universally! A sound conclusion: “A no win situation for a sensitive disposition.”

I have told my kids that they should wait for others to brag about them instead of boasting themselves, and selfies feels like the opposite of that. Let others take pics of you!

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