Although it waxes and wanes in intensity, the debate over whether selfies are narcissistic or empowering has slogged on longer than the American presidential election for 2016 has. The latest volley in favor of the empowerment camp comes from a study linking selfies and happiness; according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, taking and sharing happy photos—including smiling selfies—can have an uplifting effect on your mood. So all that nonsense about smartphones ruining society as we know it is, well, nonsense—and it’s a compelling argument forstopping the selfie-shaming that seems to have become more and more common in recent years.
Published in the journal Psychology of Well-Being, the study followed 41 college students over the course of four weeks. At the beginning of the first week, students were given a general interview and introduced to a smartphone app for documenting their moods three times a day in the coming month. Students went about their business as usual for the first week, but during the last three, they were divided into three groups, each with a different daily task to accomplish on top of reporting their mood: One group took a smiling selfie; another took a photo of something that made them happy; and the last took a photo of something that would make someone elsehappy and sent it to that person.
When researchers analyzed participants’ moods over time, they found that participants in all three groups became generally happier. But there were some interesting trends: People who took personal photos reported feeling more “mindful, reflective, and appreciative.” Additionally, students who sent photos to other people felt more connected to that person, usually a significant other or family member, and were calmer overall.
That’s all good news, of course, but not what you’re here for, and I won’t deny you any longer. Here’s the big takeaway: People who took selfies didn’t just experience a positive change in mood; some also reported feeling more confident and developing a more natural smile. According to the paper, one participant explained in her exit interview, “As days went on, I got more comfortable taking photos of myself. If you feel good about yourself, then [a] selfie would be a way to capture that.”
The study was fairly small (just 41 students), so its results should be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a study discuss the positive applications of technology, rather than being laser-focused on the negatives—something researchers were aware of. “You see a lot of reports in the media about the negative impacts of technology use. … I think this study shows that sometimes our gadgets can offer benefits to users,” senior author Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics, said in a press release.
For something so innocuous, selfies remain a touchy subject. The argument against selfies typically boil down to this: Selfies are narcissistic as can be, and people only post them on social media for validation. To be fair, the first point is true; selfies are inherently narcissistic. But so are humans—Van Gogh painted at least 39 self-portraits, and as Vulture pointed out in a history of the selfie, everyone from M. C. Escher to Parmigianino has dabbled in self-portraits. Heck, the word “narcissism” comes from the myth of Narcissus, which is thousands of years old. The only thing that’s changed is the ease with which people can document their lives; where you previously needed artistic training or a potentially expensive camera to create a selfie, these days, smartphone users are just a shutter-click away from taking one.
As for the second point, people have all kinds of reasons for posting selfies: Showing off a new outfit, trying out a new makeup palette, celebrating their graduation ceremony—the list goes on. But even if you are just looking for validation, selfies are totally harmless. In fact, taking a selfie when you’re part of a traditionally marginalized group might help by expanding viewers’ horizons, and research has found that teens report a boost in self-confidence when they post a selfie. Furthermore, the argument could be made that some selfies are a woman’s way of taking control of the male gaze.
In short, selfies aren’t going anywhere, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So can we stop complaining about them already? If you don’t like ’em, don’t take ’em—but don’t bash others for taking them if they enjoy it. To each their own, right?
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