It is universally agreed upon that some things just look cute. Like beauty, cuteness is arguably subjective, but even more so than beauty, cuteness has a special function insofar as keeping the species alive. What we call the maternal instinct is not strictly speaking exclusive to women, or even humans. Cuteness is a phenomenon among other animals – other animals have been observed to foster the young of other species, and elephants even find humans endearing. There has even been anecdotal evidence of predators protecting the young of their prey, even if only for a while.
It’s not a matter of compassion or personality, but a characteristic of our innate drive to see offspring live on. This instinct manifests itself in our daily lives as finding things cute. We don’t want to hurt cute things. We want to protect them.
The brain is a very complicated organ, but by understanding it just a little better, we can improve our lives by taking advantage of the way we’re wired to think. During a depression or times of great stress, finding ways to bring a little light and happiness into our lives is crucial. Therapy exists specifically to help do that, but there are a few things we can do on our own to try and make a difference in our mood and mindset – among them, viewing cuteness. Yes. All that time spent looking at cat pictures? Might not necessary have been for naught.
But before we devolve into ridiculousness and lose sight of the message, it’s important to understand the impact cuteness can have, and how to make the most of it. Procrastinating by browsing cat memes is not therapeutic and can arguably make you feel much worse due to the added stress of avoiding work. However, you can calm yourself down by exposing yourself to cuteness – from watching puppies play together to heading down to the local shelter and playing with the kittens. It’s not a cure to depression or a surefire way to reverse sadness, and it doesn’t equate cute videos online with legitimate, professional therapy.
That doesn’t mean it’s not something to keep in mind, though. While anxiety and depression are not necessarily caused by online content or interactions, negative online posts and social media can aggravate these conditions, through violent or depressing YouTube videos and cyberbullying. The internet can aggravate mental illness and bring people to the brink of suicide, and beyond – but it can also be used as a force for good, if you’re willing to curate your content and spend some time cutting out the negativity.
Studies Show Cuteness Affects Focus and Induces Positivity
Remarkably, looking at cute things makes us focus up a bit. The study, conducted by Japanese researchers on the question of just how powerful kawaii could be, involved making participants go through a series of cognitive tests after exposing them to a few images, to see how the images might affect their performance. Each group performed a cognitive exercise, involving accuracy and reflexes. Then, they had another go at a similar exercise, after viewing a few images.
One group viewed images of delicious foods. Another viewed images of adult animals, such as dogs. And the last group viewed images of baby animals. Only this group saw a significant improvement in attention and accuracy, enough to be statistically relevant. They recreated the experiment successfully with another group, concluding that the boost in focus could not have been related to social responsibility or general pleasantness, but had to come uniquely from the cuteness of the baby animal pictures.
A possible hypothesis is that seeing something cute makes us pay more attention to our surroundings, perhaps in an effort to sharpen our senses in case of any impending danger. We become attentive to avoid hurting the young animal, and to protect it.
Maternal instincts are not universal among animals, with certain contexts often involving the young passing away first, the general idea being that some animals are wired to protect themselves, first, in order to reproduce again in the future. Hamsters and kangaroos will sacrifice their newborn kin in the presence of mortal threats, and infanticide is not particularly uncommon among prey and predator. However, elephants and primates may adopt and foster the young of other species, and it’s not unheard of in other species as well.
Regardless of how cruel and violent nature might be, there’s a treasure trove of potential findings regarding the power of cuteness in resolving stress and improving mood and focus. While the Japanese study focused on how cuteness might affect performance, another study tried to ascertain whether looking at something online on a screen can be emotionally effective – studying the power of “affect” through internet media. The results indicated that it was very much possible to make someone feel happy by showing them something through the Internet.
Cat Pictures Won’t Cure You, But Can Distract You
The benefits of cute media are ephemeral. Rather than inspiring any form of treatment or therapy, simply being aware of the effects of cuteness might help you devise of a way to better spend your time on the Internet. Stay away from content that can actively hurt you and worsen your depression, from needlessly fearmongering headlines to hateful and aggravating views. Subscribe to channels that celebrate music, feature happy and rescued animals, and specialize in comedy. What you see online is up to you, and aside from cutting down your browsing time, it helps to improve the quality of your browsing.
Therapeutic content does exist online. ASMR, for example, is a response on the skin often experienced through certain forms of audio, possibly through a form of synesthesia (where you perceive senses through different sense organs, like feeling sound). This can be calming and relaxing, stopping panic attacks and improving symptoms of depression. Aside from low-quality imitations, high-quality ASMR content does exist through the Internet, completely free for use.
Consider Swapping People for Doggos
The Internet supplies us with an almost endless well of knowledge – some of it very useful, and much of it very false – but it also puts us in direct connection to countless human beings, through social networking platforms, multiplayer video games, instant messaging apps, and voice chat programs like Skype and Discord. We can learn other languages, practice them with strangers, and learn about other cultures. We can close a gap of thousands of miles, speaking as though we were face to face.
But for all its benefits, the Internet can also be a very scary and harmful place. With the freedom to write and post anything online, under any alias, the Internet is often filled with incredibly hateful and emotionally damaging content. With a strong and healthy psyche, it’s possible to wade through that content and remain healthy. But for someone with a mood disorder, content can be legitimately “triggering”, causing a cascade of unhealthy thoughts and self-doubt.
Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are perfect for spreading fear and misinformation, as well as carefully-targeted bullying campaigns. Meanwhile, even innocuous posts such as someone’s vacation or edited beach pictures may lead to thoughts of envy and self-loathing.
If you’re spending too much time online, then cutting down on your time spent in front of a screen is a good first step. Another important step is to remove your contact with people who actively make you feel worse about yourself. Instead, consider subscribing or following accounts that focus on positive content, wholesome content, comedy, and cuteness. Focus on the things that interest or motivate you, that make you excited to go out and do something rather than making you feel terrible, accounts that specialize on brightening your day rather than darkening it, and profiles with amazingly witty and hilarious content, rather than hurtful or divisive content.
The internet cannot and should not be censored, but you can curate and cut out the parts that make your depression worse.
Physical Pets Provide Further Benefits
Of course, nothing provides as much distilled cuteness as an actual pet. But owning a pet is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a pet suited to your lifestyle – if properly researched and taken care of – can provide years of undying loyalty, love, affection, and happiness. Early moments will be full of frustrations, especially when raising a young dog or cat, and it can get tiresome.
But having a pet also means eventually losing a pet. That loss can hurt and cut deeply and be quite difficult to overcome while struggling with depression. Having and caring for a pet can make your life better, if you are prepared for the commitment. But do not under any circumstances consider getting a pet if you are moving, about to move, or are unsure of your commitment to the animal in years to come.
Online pictures and videos are easy, simple, and come with no emotional baggage. But the fleeting feeling of watching a puppy play with another puppy through YouTube is incomparable to playing with a puppy in your own living room. If you’re prepared for the responsibility and the hardships, a pet can help you through your hardest times.