A small study out of the University of California, Irvine, has suggested that taking selfies or other photos can promote happiness in a person’s life. At first glance, this seems to suggest that taking selfies makes people happy, which comes off as somewhat banal and easy to poke fun at. However, the main takeaway of the research is slightly more nuanced and involves using small, deliberate actions to promote positive feelings and stress relief.
In Brief: Happiness
The study is based around three concepts: smiling, reflecting, and giving, each of which has very clear and very real foundations in psychological research. Smiling (or, to use science-speak, “positive facial expressions,”) during stressful periods has been known to improve the ability to withstand stress and helps improve mood. Reflection—for example, writing down three good things each day—has also been demonstrated to make people happier or less depressed. Similarly, research has found that giving or expressing thanks has been able to improve a sense of happiness as well.
The UCI study is based on these ideas and is essentially asking the question, “Since mobile devices and their photo technology are so common, can they be used to create simple exercises that harness smiling, reflection, or giving to improve happiness?”
The study took 41 college students and gave them a general questionnaire to assess mood. The students were then given two apps for their phones. One was used to document their mood during what the researchers described as a “control” week, and the second would be used to take photos and record emotions during the next three weeks of the study. Each student was randomized to be assigned one type of photo out of the three: a smiling selfie, a photo of something that would make them happy, or a photo of something they thought would make someone else happy (which was then forwarded to that person).
All three groups showed improvements in positive moods along measurements that made sense for their categories. The selfie group reported getting more comfortable and confident with taking the photos, the reflection group started feeling more appreciative, and the giving group reported feeling calmer and having better family/friend connections.
Obviously, the study is small and subject to the flaws inherent in self-reporting, but the findings are certainly plausible.
The idea that simple selfie and photo exercises could promote positive feelings and stress relief, or happiness in general, is interesting. With back-to-school season starting, these findings might be of interest to stressed-out college students. However, from a critical standpoint, the number of participants is too low.
Chen, Y., et al., “Promoting Positive Affect through Smartphone Photography,” Psychology of Well-Being, 2016; 10.1186/s13612-016-0044-4.