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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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