We tend to think the joy of a vacation is the time you spend actually lolling on the beach or exploring a new city. But according to happiness researchers, being at your destination produces only a fraction of the overall happiness a vacation brings into your life. You actually get much more total pleasure out of the process of planning and then remembering your trip.

Which is why it's a total shame that you're constantly snapping photos and updating your Instagram when you're away from home. You think may think all those pics are helping you remember the good times, but science also shows photos actually destroy our memories.

Put the camera down!

Say you take a day to go observe great art at a museum with a friend. One of you strolls through the galleries iPhone in hand, constantly snapping pics of pieces that interest you. The other one is more of a low-tech sort and simply wanders around looking. When you get home, who will remember the museum's masterpieces better?

According to a fascinating and in-depth write-up of multiple studies on the subject from Chase Purdy on Quartz, the counterintuitive answer is that the phone-less friend is far more likely to remember more about the trip.

"Taking photos can impair a person's ability to remember the details of the experiences being photographed, an effect that appears to linger even after the camera has been put down," Purdy quotes one set of researchers as concluding.

The takeaway here for your vacation this summer isn't exactly hard to figure out -- the less time you spend updating your Instagram, the more you'll probably actually remember about your time away.

Why you might want to put together a vacation album anyway

While the evidence is pretty clear that you're rotting your actual memories by always having your phone or camera in your hand, there is a case to be made for continuing to take some pictures in moderation. It's equally well proven that humans derive surprising amounts of pleasure from looking back at even the mundane details of their pasts. And while too many photos may erode your organic memories, they do provide a handy excuse to get nostalgic about past trips.

"Memory must be cultivated," time use expert Laura Vanderkam reminds readers in her new book Off the Clock, which explains how to fight back against that sense that life is flying by in a frantic blur. "You can actively choose to document your adventures in ways that will help you pull them out."

"Modern sorts need no encouragement to take photos. What we do need encouragement for is their active curation: choosing the best to make photo books that we will pause from our days to ponder, rather than just having a big file on the iPhone that will be lost when the iPhone gets forgotten on the bus," she continues.

Taking photos, in other words, diminishes our natural memories of an event, but thoughtfully selecting a few snaps for inclusion in some sort of memento like an album or gallery wall will prompt you to recall your past more (even if it's a little hazy), and that will bring you joy for years and years.

That suggests that the best path when it comes to taking vacation photos may be the middle way. Constant photo taking will get in the way of experiencing and remembering your getaway, but that doesn't mean you should leave the camera home entirely. Taking fewer, more thoughtful photos, and actually enjoying looking back on them later, will probably create more happiness than you lose looking away from the sunset to fiddle with the focus a few times. 

Published on: Jun 18, 2018