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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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days 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.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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