Katherine Nelson-Coffey, Ph.D.

Living Life Well

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words, but Does It Make You Happy?

New research explores whether photographing experiences increases enjoyment

Posted Aug 29, 2016

On a recent vacation in Europe, my husband and I brought along our hefty digital camera. We did a lot of sightseeing on this trip and came home with nearly 1,000 images. While we were snapping away, trying to capture every moment, I found myself wondering—should we put the camera away and just enjoy the time while we’re here? Is taking so many photos somehow hindering our enjoyment of these incredible experiences?

Taking pictures of experiences has become increasingly common, and not just for vacations or once-in-a-lifetime events. Most of us carry cell phones equipped with decent cameras, making it even easier to snap a few photos during nearly any experience—whether it’s a view of the Eiffel Tower or a view of your lunch. But does taking that photo of your colorful Strawberry and Arugula salad actually increase your enjoyment of your lunch? Does a view of the Eiffel Tower become even more inspiring after viewing it through the lens of a camera?

Pexels
Source: Pexels

A series of studies to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds light on these questions (if only I had read this research before we went on our trip!). Across 9 separate studies, participants were randomly assigned to take photos or not while enjoying a variety of experiences—a bus tour of Philadelphia, an ordinary lunch, virtual safaris, and virtual tours of foreign cities. Across these studies, taking photos generally led to greater engagement in the experience, which in turn predicted greater enjoyment. In other words, when we take photos of our experiences, we pay closer attention and become more immersed in the activity, and when we’re more immersed and involved in the activity, we enjoy it more. In addition, whereas the enjoyment of most good things fades with time, people who took photos of their experiences were immune to this adaptation. When asked a week later, enjoyment of the experiences decreased for people who didn’t take pictures, but enjoyment held strong for people who did. 

At surface level, it sounds like taking pictures of our experiences is a great idea. So, we should all go out and start snapping photos of everything we do, right? A few details from these studies are worth keeping in mind as you think about how taking photos might influence your enjoyment.

  • In all of these studies, the experiences were primarily solitary. We can’t be sure how taking pictures interferes with social experiences.  It seems possible that taking photos could take away from social experiences—especially if you’re distracted from pleasant conversation or removed from the activity. My advice: Keep the photos to a minimum when you’re with other people.
  • Another common feature of these experiences is that they were relatively passive, such as taking a bus tour or visiting an art exhibit. In these experiences, people are primarily taking in the sights, rather than actively doing or experiencing something. In one of the studies, participants varied in how involved they could become in the experience. Specifically, half of the participants were assigned (and given instructions and materials) to build an artistic creation. The others were assigned to watch someone else produce the creation. In this study, the enjoyment only increased for the photographers in the passive (i.e., watching someone else create an artistic masterpiece) condition. When people are actively creating something themselves, they are already involved and engaged in the activity. In some ways, stopping to take photos might remove them from the activity. My advice: Take fewer photos when you’re actively engaged in something and more photos when you’re a passive onlooker.  
  • In one version of the study, the participants had to drag a bulky camera into their visual field to take their photos, or they were given a limit on the number of photos they could take. Giving participants a limit ultimately led them to spend some of their time deleting photos of the camera in the middle of the experience. In these two conditions—when photography interferes with the experience—photographers did not enjoy the experience any more than non-photographers. We’ve all been there—you take several pictures, and you want to scroll through them to delete the bad ones or pick the best one to post to Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. But this shifts your focus towards your phone (and away from the Eiffel Tower!), thus limiting your enjoyment of the Eiffel Tower. My advice: Wait until you get home to look through the pictures.
  • Finally, it’s worth noting that taking pictures only increased enjoyment of experiences that were already positive. In one of the studies, participants varied in whether the experience was positive or negative. Taking photos of negative experiences similarly increased engagement in those experiences, but that’s not such a good thing when it comes to negative experiences. Becoming more engaged and immersed in negative experiences serves to magnify their negativity. Not so good. My advice: Don’t snap a photo of your next trip to the dentist. Only capture the good stuff.

All in all, these studies can help people to better use photography to amplify their enjoyment of positive experiences. In general, if you’re in the midst of a relatively positive and solitary experience, and taking pictures won’t distract you from your activity, then taking photos could focus your attention and lead you to become even more engaged in the activity, and enjoy it even more. Snap away!  

Reference

Diehl, K., Zauberman, G., & Barasch, A. (in press). How taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.