There are a surprising (or perhaps frightening) number of videos on the Internet that involve small animals (particularly dogs and cats) doing adorable things. Online are videos of kittens resting, kittens playing with dogs, puppies crawling along with babies, kittens chasing dots from laser pointers, cats trying (and failing) to jump on couches, and puppies playing with squeaky balls. What’s with our seemingly boundless fascination with kitten videos?
The starting point for the joy of kitten videos is our evolutionarily programmed sense of what is cute. Both men and women (unless they have hearts of stone) find human infants cute. Particularly cute infants tend to have larger heads but smaller features. This structure gives infant faces large foreheads. Cute infants also have large eyes.
Infant cuteness creates positive feelings in the adults and older children who see them. This positive feeling is necessary because (as anyone who has spent a lot of time with infants can attest) babies can be quite difficult to be around in large doses. Babies require a lot of care. They need to be fed, washed, and carried. They often cry when they are not sleeping. And babies often wake up in the middle of the night needing to be fed, or changed, or just because.
In order for all of the baby demands to seem worth it to adult caregivers, they need some positive feedback. Before infants are mature enough to engage with adults and smile and laugh, all they have going for them is their cuteness. And not surprisingly, adults are wired to respond to infant facial features with positive feelings.
As it turns out, the facial features of immature humans are similar to the facial features of young animals, like kittens and puppies. Baby animals also have small facial features and large eyes, so you generally respond to kittens and puppies in the same way you do to babies. Looking at them, you get an immediate dose of the “warm fuzzies.”
You might wonder whether kitten videos, like any great little snack, are actually good for you. Because they, like many drugs, can provide an immediate boost of positive feeling whenever you’d like one, you might suspect that they are not something you should waste your time on.
But it turns out that cute videos are probably good for you, as long as you don’t become so enthralled that you allow hours to slip by as you sit motionless staring at them. The modern world is filled with lots of stresses. From early in the school years, kids have busy schedules with lots of activities and homework. Most adults’ jobs are busy, and many adults work long hours. For many people, days are filled with more drudgery than joy.
There is lots of good evidence that a positive mood is beneficial in lots of ways. For example, people tend to be more creative when they are in a positive mood than when they are in a neutral mood. They make better decisions in complex environments when they are in a positive mood. In addition, people in positive moods have more self-control resources. When you are feeling good, you are less likely to snap at a co-worker who annoys you than when you are not.
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And when you are feeling a little down (or perhaps just not feeling that good), a kitten video can jump-start a positive mood. Once you are in a positive mood, two good things can happen. First, people’s behavior is often contagious. If you smile, the people around you are likely to smile as well. That means that making yourself a little happier can increase the happiness of the people around you.
Second, your mood affects what you remember. When you feel good, you tend to remember positive things. When you feel bad, you tend to remember sad and stressful things. What you recall in turn influences your mood, so if you start out in a positive mood, that mood can be maintained by the things you remember. When you start out in a bad mood, the things you recall can make the bad mood persist.
If you find yourself stuck in a bad mood, then watching some cute videos can provide a way to inject some positive feeling into your day in ways that might set you on the course to feeling good the rest of the day.
Of course, small doses are the key to any mood enhancement. For one thing, you get the biggest effect on mood from the first video you watch. After that, you have already engaged the system that creates positive feeling from faces. Before long, you may habituate to the videos (as you may habituate to the effects of a drug), meaning that you are no longer getting any additional value from watching them.
Plus, if you spend too much time watching cute videos, you will probably run out of time to take care of important things you need to accomplish, and the stress of missed deadlines can ruin the joy induced by big-eyed kittens.
Courtesy Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.
Art Markman, PhD, and Bob Duke, PhD, host the podcast Two Guys on Your Head. Find more of their answers to fun psychology questions (Why are other people such slackers? What’s the best way to deal with life’s endless litany of nuisances?), grab a copy of their book, Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions about Your Mind.