What is the purpose of life?
Spirituality and philosophy have been trying to answer this question for centuries, so I don’t pretend to have a quick answer. I certainly don’t know what comes after life or why humans were made to exist.
But having worked as a psychiatrist for the past decade, I can tell you this: the one thing that gives meaning to life, in the here and now, is connection. Especially the connections you create with your immediate family.
Although we often hear about how one should behave to create closeness with loved ones, the field of psychology hasn’t done a good job of teaching families how their home environment can also make or break family bonds.
Why is this important? Because, our environments prime our moods.
You see, our brains tend to pick up things in the environment and incorporate them into emotions almost unconsciously. For example, studies have shown that when people are in a room where, among many things, there is a computer with an image of money as a screen saver, we tend to become more self centered and less likely to help someone out. This is even when we have no conscious recollection of a monitor in the room!
In another example, a British University cafeteria kept an honesty box next to the coffee machine. The idea was that anyone who took a cup of coffee would be trusted to pay for it. A study then found that if a small image of a pair of eyes “watching” was placed above the coffee machine, more people tend to pay up!
If the power of an unconscious visual cue is so great on our self image and behavior, imagine how powerful real images, such as family photographs, could be?
Dr. David Krauss, PhD has spent his life researching the ways photographs influence self image and family dynamics. Here are some of the ways:
I Matter: He says when parents choose to display pictures of their kids at home; it sends a powerful message to the children that they matter. They sense that their existence is important to their parents. After all, wall space is limited, and what you choose to give it up for says a lot about your priorities right?
I am growing: Photos often create a visual narrative of time. Children will enjoy seeing themselves growing up across the wall! This reinforces a healthy self image. I once had a nine year old patient tell me “When I look at all my photos at home, I know that even the worst thing will soon be okay and I’ll still make it and keep growing.”
I am loved: There are times in every family when the daily rush of life takes over and days go by with no time to express your love. But as we saw with the priming example, photos can be unconscious reminders, reassuring us even when words and actions are temporarily absent. In fact, a study by Open University found that people felt 11% happier just by looking at a photo of a loved one (TV, alcohol and even music didn’t have such a big impact!). And who wouldn’t like to feel 11% happier in an instant? I know I would!
I belong: Whenever I go back home to India, my siblings and I spend a lazy afternoon with my grandmother, looking through photos of the past fifty years, all the way from my great grandparents to today. It’s amazing the stories that come out of these sessions. And amidst the talking and laughter, I recreate my cultural roots and relearn family traditions. Knowing where you came from is very powerful. As much as possible, cherish your time this way with your older relatives and pass this gift on to your kids.
I can: There is a negative voice in everyone’s head that often makes us doubt if we are capable enough for something. Whether it’s to try out for the school drama or to work up the nerve to ask for a promotion, we all need reminders that can prime our brains to recall potential. Photos can be a rich medium for this.
Imagine having a picture of you climbing a mountain, graduating from college, proposing to your partner or your kid hitting a difficult shot; anything that truly took guts and skill. What a powerful reminder of potential that would be right?
So, these are all the ways in which real photos influence who we are.
But what about digital photographs?
With the ease of modern smart phones, we are all taking more photos than ever. Which is wonderful. But sadly, most of them are quickly forgotten in a computer drive or in your camera’s memory card.
Photos that don’t get looked at or talked about are almost useless. They lose their whole purpose.
Today, I invite you to take a look around your home. Does it make you feel happy, loved and connected? I look forward to hearing your thoughts below.
Kavetha is a psychiatrist who is passionate about all things brain/psychology related.