It might seem frivolous to share photos of cute pets, or photobombing animals, but there is scientific evidence from psychological research that viewing certain pictures can combat stress and make us happier. So why are photos able to evoke our emotions so readily?
We are visual creatures and our brain is biased towards visual information. This emphasis on visual cues is evolutionary – our vision tells us very quickly if the environment is safe (evoking happy/positive emotional responses) or risky (evoking more anger or fear based emotional responses). A significant proportion of our brain and our emotions are attached to processing what we see.
So why is viewing certain types of pictures good for us? Just as research from psychology shows that life’s little stresses (misplacing keys, missing the bus) create the most negative effects on us, we also know that little moments of happiness can bust stress. Coca-Cola’s ‘Choose Happiness’ campaign seeks to recognise this, by demonstrating that simply seeing, or sharing, a cute or funny photo can make us feel good.
Furthermore, sharing these types of photos on social media enhances our social standing. Sharing photos that make others smile or laugh ensures that response is attributed to us (as the people who sent them the picture) and validates our ‘membership’. Making someone smile also inflates our egos, which in turn makes us happy!
Having real photos in the home, especially photos of loved ones, also provides constant psychological positive reinforcement - they remind us who is important (social bond enhancement), what we are busy working for, and what we've achieved together (those lovely family/couple shots). They are different to those on social media, and they can feel more personal and become more valued over a long time period.
The happiest photos in the world
The happiest photos in the world
1/10 Top10 happiest photos
In first place, this much-shared squirrel. The photograph was taken in 2009 by Melissa Brandts and her husband Jackson while visiting Lake Minnewanka at Banff National Park in Canada. The image spread virally and is revered by many as the original animal photo-bomb.
2/10 Top10 happiest photos
This pink-hatted baby proved the biggest small human hit. It was also voted the ‘most smiled at’ image by women. Psychological studies have demonstrated that we have an automatic positive emotional reaction to pictures of babies.
3/10 Top10 happiest photos
Owls might be known as wise and nocturnal, but they're not traditionally associated with happiness. Yet this snowy owl won out over the most socially-shared animals - cats and dogs – to make more people smile. . The fact that owls are also associated with both childhood (books and films) and nighttime (when we relax and rest and escape from work and stress) also promotes a positive reaction on our part.
4/10 Top10 happiest photos
This looming giraffe image proved irresistible in testing. Its smiling face, framed by blue sky and fluffy clouds prompted a smile from over two thirds of people. This curious giraffe probably massages our egos - we react positively to things that pay us attention. The fact that it is leaning in our direction and seems to be smiling signals it is fascinated by us and is unthreatening.
5/10 Top10 happiest photos
Does this blissed-out, smiling and possibly sleeping dog remind us of rolling around in green fields? He certainly looks happy about it, and his grin triggered a mirror smile in over two thirds of people. Dogs and cats often rank highly in our favourite photo lists. This is probably due to a combination of familiarity with these animals as pets (and fond memories of family pets) and because they are creatures that are loyal and trusting of humans.
6/10 Top10 happiest photos
The world's favourite pets come together to star in this cute photograph. A classic friendship.
7/10 Top10 happiest photos
This small smiling lamb comes in at number 7
8/10 Top10 happiest photos
This picture of a baby with a moustache a bow tie is sure to make people smile
9/10 Top10 happiest photos
These two huge polar bears embracing triggers a feeling of warmth in even the iciest of hearts
10/10 Top10 happiest photos
Cats are known for loving a good rest, and this kitty makes the most of his stretch
The research results from ‘happiest picture’ poll support these psychological reasons for photo sharing. The people polled were very likely to smile at cute animals, especially if those animals were doing something surprising. Sharing pictures of funny animals is ‘psychologically safe’ in comparison to sharing pictures of our family or our holidays.
The photo most likely to evoke a smile shows a squirrel photobombing a couples’ holiday photo. The cheeky critter pops up in the photograph originally intended as a self-portrait of the couple. Psychologically the surprise appearance of this cute furry friend causes a cognitive orienting response. There’s an incongruence between what we should be seeing (a holiday photo) and what we are unexpectedly witnessing (a curious squirrel standing in the foreground) that makes us search for meaning. In the case of the squirrel, it’s a pleasant surprise and the unexpected pleasure of seeing something funny when we were expecting something more mundane triggers a positive response (in this case smiling or even laughing).
This is probably why photobombing has become such a popular trend - it results in an unexpected emotional experience. Nice surprises are good as psychologically we feel we have something more than we were expecting. We all love a bargain – even a psychological one!
So don’t under estimate the potential positive power of photos – even small, silly activities can bring big psychological benefits.
'Dr Simon Moore, Chartered Psychologist with Innovationbubble.eu, Member of the BPS
Images: Coca-Cola / Getty imagesReuse content