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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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