Spamming your Instagram feed with iPhone shots of your four-pack abs is a recipe for annoying your friends.
But a few select, meaningful photos that make you feel good, sent to a few good friends? That might be the recipe for keeping up with your gym routine and unlocking new levels of self-confidence.
Yes: Selfies, often mocked as a the epitome of smartphone-era self-indulgence since the term was coined in 2014, can actually be a good way to connect with people you care about and reflect on things that motivate you and make you happy, according to a new study from University of California at Irvine published in July in the journal Psychology of Well-Being.
We know what you’re thinking: Really? I figured they just made people look like jerks. And you have a point: Science around selfies hasn’t always been so sunny. Guys who post “a lot” of selfies on Facebook or Instagram tend to score higher in narcissism and “self-objectification,” according to a widely reported Ohio State University study published in early 2015. Men’s Fitness readers tend to be annoyed by dudes taking gym selfies, particularly when the selfie-taker in question is walking around the gym shirtless while everyone else is just trying to get in a good workout. And our own surveys suggest that women are similarly peeved by gym selfies shared on social media.
POLL: Do you ever take gym selfies?
— Men's Fitness Wire (@MensFitnessWire) September 14, 2016
But here’s the question: Assuming you’re not fishing for compliments or desperately trying to impress anybody, how can taking selfies (not necessarily shirtless gym selfies) really improve how you feel about yourself?
How the Study Worked
Researchers specifically wanted to explore three habits that tend to make people feel happier: recording things that make you feel happy, giving to others, and smiling (yes, research suggests you can improve your mood simply by smiling).
So the researchers asked 41 students at a “public university on the West Coast” to try adding one of three habits to their daily routines:
– (1) taking a selfie while smiling every day
– (2) taking a daily photo of something that makes them happy
– (3) taking a photo of something that would make someone else happy, and then sending it (via text, email, or social media) to that person.
Using custom-built Android apps, the researchers tracked the students’ mood for a week before trying any of the habits, and then for three weeks while practicing one of the three habits.
– People in the selfie group tended to feel more “confident, comfortable, and creative” in their photos, although they noted that constantly having to take photos got repetitive and annoying. “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,” one study participant said. (They also tended to take them in private places when no one else was around, the study authors reported.)
– People in the “happy photos” group felt “more mindful, reflective and appreciative,” the study authors wrote. “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,” one student said.
– The “photos for others” group tended to feel less stressed, and felt happy when the photo recipients responded to their messages. “It was fun to send stuff to my girlfriend to make her laugh,” one person said. “Seeing her reactions will always make me smile.”
So What’s This Mean for Your Life?
If taking selfies are a good way to combat stress and make you feel good about yourself—particularly if they capture things that make you happy or reference inside jokes that you can share with your friends or family—then maybe it’s not the worst idea to work them into your routine.
Put more academically, “practicing exercises that can promote happiness via smartphone picture-taking and sharing can lead to increased positive feelings for those who engage in it,” said Yu Chen, Ph.D., the lead study author and a scholar in UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics.
So while taking selfies by the squat rack can get kind of annoying for everyone else, a more private selfie can be a good way to track your weight loss progress and motivate you to keep going back to the gym. And although random gym selfies posted indiscriminately to Facebook for the sake of likes and building your #gymlyfe cred might piss people off, a (tasteful) shot shared with a friend, your trainer, or gym buddy can not only make you feel closer with that person but also help you feel better at the same time.
Just do us all a favor and don’t hog the bathroom mirror at the gym, okay? Okay.
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