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Published on September 17, 2018

Taking a photo a day can improve your well-beingTaking a photo a day can improve your well-being

Sharing photos online has never been easier. You can post them on Facebook, Instagram or join photo sharing websites like Blipfoto or the 365 Project. It’s not only fun, but it may also be healthy.Sample sunset

A new study done in England indicates that taking a photo a day and posting it online can improve a person’s sense of well-being.

The study recorded what photos and captions people shared on the photo-a-day site Blipfoto for a period of two months. Afterwards, the researchers found that taking a photo a day and sharing it had an impact on well-being in the following ways:

  • It caused people to leave their house and seek an adventure.
  • It made people more mindful of the beauty around them.
  • It helped people actively engage in their environment.
  • It gave people a sense of purpose, achievement and accomplishment.
  • It created a sense of community engagement with others with similar interests.
  • It encouraged people to get more exercise by walking.

As a person who has participated in the 365 Project, I can attest to the many benefits. A few years ago, I was suffering from the January post-holiday blues. I read about the 365 Project in a magazine and the idea of recording a year of my life intrigued me. I was interested in learning about photography and this seemed like a great way to do it.

The premise is that you take a photograph every day for a full year and post it online. It is similar to social media sites like Facebook in that you find people to follow and other people follow you. But unlike Facebook, these people are complete strangers – at first.

photo of a fox

After a few stops and starts, I settled into the project and was heading out every afternoon to see what I could find. Within a week, I realized that I was seeing more beauty in the world every day. The beauty was always there, but I hadn’t been noticing it. My mood lifted considerably and that reaction is backed by science. Research [pdf] shows that time spent in nature helps people feel more vital and happy to be alive. It can also help elevate mood and prevent depression and anxiety.

Occupational therapist Manny Marrero, who works at the Centers for Behavioral Health at Cape Cod Healthcare, said there are many studies showing the positive effects of being out in nature.

“When you are out in nature you are tuned into the present moment and what’s going on around you, and the beauty of it all,” he said. “It just brings you a sense of calmness and well-being that opens up so many windows to joy, creativity and a sense of well-being. There are also physical changes in the body that happen.”

Studies show that people experience decreased stress hormones, especially cortisol, when they are mindful and out in nature. Elevated levels of cortisol over time can cause health issues like increased inflammation and decreased cardiovascular health, he said.

photo of a hawk

“Being out in nature can decrease feelings of anxiety, fear and stress, and increased energy, cognition and an overall sense of well-being,” Marrero said.

Finding New Places and Losing Weight

Over my year of daily photography, I became more adventurous. I ventured into places off the beaten path and got wet feet. I explored conservation areas I’d always planned to visit and drove down roads I’d never before traveled. I chased sunsets and foxes and saw my first four-leaf clover.

I also lost weight.

One participant in the British study found that, like me, it encouraged her to get more exercise than she normally would be inclined to do.

“It encourages me out of the house sometimes when I could just sit on my backside with a cup of tea,” she said. “I’ll think maybe I’ll take a walk down on to the seafront and before I know it I’m two miles along the coast.”

photo of a herring

Another participant said it encouraged self-care and mindfulness of his surroundings.

“Photography has been quite good for me over the years because I think it forces me to look at the world again,” he said. “And also, there’s a postural thing. If you’re only looking down, when you’re depressed and hunched over, it encourages you to look up or at least squat down and look at something different and to stop and smell the flowers.”

Marrero, who has practiced mindfulness meditation for eight years, said experiences like this can create a sense of being in the zone or flow state where you are so completely absorbed in an activity that you lose track of time.

“Flow state is being focused, in the present moment and tuned into exactly what’s happening,” he said. “That causes so many good feelings and has so many benefits like relaxation. They’ve shown decreased heart rate and blood pressure during these times of flow state and the brain releases dopamine and serotonin. I’ve found that flow state is by far one of the healthiest experiences, not only for the mind, but also the physical body as well because they are interconnected.”

It’s About Connections

In the study, building genuine connections with other people played a huge role in the participants’ sense of well-being. Several people had recently retired and the photo-a-day project helped them find a community to replace their office mates or co-workers. It gave them people to share their daily news with – both good and bad – and alleviated loneliness.

“If it was just a photo site putting a picture up and a title, I would probably have dropped out within a month or two,” another study participant said. “But it was the conversations. That’s when you realized that it was something different and that was possibly at least as important as the photograph that you were taking. It could be a rubbish photograph but if somebody commented on it, it made it worthwhile.”

I would have to agree that the community I found on 365 was a large part of why I loved it so much. As wonderful as it was to search out beauty and do something creative, it was the friendships I made that kept me going. I made friends who lived in Sandwich and Provincetown and we met for photo shoots in person or just to have lunch. One woman drove from Moosup, Connecticut, so we could take photos together at the Edward Gorey House Museum and the Sandwich Glass Museum.

photo of a mother and baby seal

When another newfound friend flew from Los Angeles to Boston for a vacation with her husband, my husband and I drove up to spend a day with them. She immediately gave me five hugs – one from each person I was following in L.A. on the 365 Project. A woman from Ottawa, Canada, shared her red pepper jelly recipe, and my close-up photo of a hawk is hanging in another woman’s home in Australia.

These people became real friends over time and I still keep in touch with most of them. Part of the sense of connection is that sharing photos is intimate. You can tell an awful lot about a person by the photos they post every day and the captions they include with them. It’s a slice of their life that reveals the things they think are important.

That sense of social connection with others with a common interest has health benefits of its own, Marrero said. He thought it would also be a great way for those who have social anxiety to slowly integrate into community.

There is something very validating when someone leaves meaningful comments on your photos, but the website itself also validates people. If someone who is participating gets enough comments and “favs,” their photo shows up on the “popular page.” But it’s not just about volume. 365 Project founder Ross Scrivener from Ipswich, England, devised an algorithm that allows new people or people with fewer followers to end up on the popular page as often as those who have hundreds of followers.

“It sounds remarkable,” Marrero said. “I think you’ve inspired me to take this on as well.”