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

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.

6 Comments

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!

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
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.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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