Awwwstruck: Q+A with Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D.

QA-HappinessWith Internet use linked to depression, and Facebook to low self-esteem, this expert says it’s no surprise users are scrambling for a daily dose of cute

At OMMA, we sometimes get burned out with the barrage of media and technology news — especially recent research that’s found it might be making us depressed and hurting our self-esteem. Even the most cynical of us find ourselves constantly clicking on reliable digital distractions: baby animals, fluffy cats and goofy dogs. After months of OMMA editors swapping Lolcats over email, we thought it would be a good idea if we could get an expert to validate our burgeoning obsession. We called Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Institute, who holds a Ph.D. in media psychology, to see if she could explain our pursuit of pointless happiness.

First, what is a media psychologist?

Media psychology is looking at media and technology through the lens of psychology. We’re really looking at the experience of using and developing media from individual and group experience and behavior.

Why do people seek out pointless happiness on the Internet?

The media get a very bad rap for always looking at the negative side. Why are people putting up YouTube videos of abuse? Why are people so addicted to social media? It’s delightful to have somebody looking at the upside. To me the upside of all this connectivity outweighs the downside.

So why do people seek out happiness? The ability to make yourself happy and cheer yourself up is a very powerful thing. It’s part of what we try to teach children at a young age: the ability to self-soothe so they aren’t always reliant on other people. So the Internet really provides a lot of ways to give us happy feelings. It’s very important because there are very strong psychological responses to smiling and laughter. They change the way your neurons are firing, your stress level, your blood pressure. It’s a great opportunity for more creative and innovative thinking. It really sets your brain in motion for very positive cognitive functions. People don’t look at Lolcats to be more creative, but it is a result. The act of smiling changes brain chemicals.

What chemicals?
Endorphins, oxytocin — the happy neurotransmitters. Your brain activity is in different areas. It’s also relaxing. There has been very cool research about how happiness is contagious — perhaps more so than negative emotion.

If you were running a company, would you encourage your employees to spend some time each day looking at pictures of cute animals or whatever it is that makes them laugh?

I would encourage employees to have opportunities to take a sort of break from intense hard thinking and do something that is humorous and fun. Recognizing that a short break is really positive for productivity is a very important thing. If I were a boss, I would be looking for ways to share a little humor.

There was research done by college professors who had students who said they were bored. So they had different ways to introduce humor to [a] lecture. Turns out the kids didn’t care how humor got introduced, they just cared that there was emotional engagement. And anytime there is emotional engagement people learn better.

Is that a reason that more offices are becoming dog-friendly?

Absolutely. Just the act of petting animals lowers your blood pressure and reduces stress.

Is there a correlation between dogs and happiness Web sites? Do they make us feel the same emotions?

Petting animals releases an [antistress] response. Pictures of cute animals online will trigger warm feelings. Are [they] the same? I’m not sure. But anything that makes you happier will have similar stress-reducing properties.

Is this a new phenomenon? People seeking out happiness perhaps because they feel things are so awful in society?

Things aren’t so awful, but I think people are very stressed right now because times are different in some kinds of ways. So focusing on small, cute things reduces the sort of uncertainty in the world and flips it into a child-like state. I’m not implying that it’s regressing in any way, but it takes you back to a safe place and allows you to experience some of that childish joy that we lose track of when we are slogging around in a hard world.

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