The unthinkable happened at a friend’s wedding last month. As the groom was asked to confirm his desire to accept the bride as his lawfully wedded wife, he held up his hand, as if to say “wait a minute.” The audible gasps among the attendees turned to relieved chuckles as he pulled out his iPhone in the middle of the vows. He was tweeting, “I Do,” to his hundred or so followers.
At a coffee catch-up yesterday, the person I met with was too busy typing meeting minutes in Google Docs to actually have a face-to-face conversation with me. Even after I received his play-by-play account of our meeting via email, I left feeling as if we wasted time and never went deep enough to discuss specific, critical issues.
On New Year’s Eve last year, as thousands of people counted down from ten to one, I looked across the Sydney Harbor foreshore. I was shocked that most revelers were taking photos of the fireworks instead of actually watching them.
Are we entering an age where capturing the highlights of our lives has taken precedence over actually enjoying those very same moments? A quick survey of the social web suggests so. On Facebook today, roughly 200 million photos will be uploaded. We’ll also turn to a myriad of other social networks, such as Instagram (15 photos per second) and Path (1.5 million items of content per day) to build deep reservoirs of the experiences we’ve painstakingly captured. And with the surge in U.S. smartphone penetration, these platforms will only become more firmly embedded in our daily routines. Said one Instagram addict about cataloging the highlights of her day, “I don’t have a problem or anything…I feel I need to grab it before it’s gone.” Thus, the new behavior on social networks is to develop, as one venture capitalist quipped, “a precious journal of moments to look at in the future.”
The problem is, we must choose between capturing these moments or viscerally experiencing them as they unfold. That we can’t do both simultaneously seems obvious — we aren’t really enjoying the live concert if we’re busy taking photos of the band. Recent research hammers this home, showing that our performance drops when we try to perform both encoding tasks (experiencing what’s around you) and response selection tasks (capturing stimuli) at the same time. So next time you have a big meeting, ask yourself whether you’re better off 1) as an active, fully engaged participant; or 2) frantically scribbling down comprehensive notes for later use, while ignoring critical room dynamics that can turn meetings on a dime — non-verbal cues, power postures, and nuanced changes in tones of voice.
Here’s why we’re so obsessed with saving moments instead of savoring them:
1. We’re wired to hoard. Psychologists have long understood the power of psychological hoarding. Humans are competitive. We like to count our victories, and most of all, we love saying that we’ve “been there, done that.” Social media platforms create hooks such as follower counts and virtual photo albums that make our experiences seem more tangible, giving us a false feeling of accumulation. It’s as if our most important experiences are now collectible.
2. We crave acceptance from our peers. Not only do we need to create a bank of experiences, we need people to notice and acknowledge our balances. After our basic human needs (such as food and shelter) are met, famed psychologist Abraham Maslow says that our esteem needs — social recognition, personal worth, and accomplishment — become critical to our perceptions of happiness. What better way to feel wanted than to log on and see scores of new likes, uplifting comments, and notifications? Over 700 million comments and likes per day are made on Facebook alone, creating a virtual hive of feedback.
3. It’s now easier than ever. Recent platform updates, such as Instagram’s simplified uploading process and Facebook’s new timeline profiles, are nudging us to capture even more of our daily lives. With the explosion in smartphone and tablet sales, we’ll be doing this from more devices than ever before.
In today’s world, it’s easy to think of your daily personal and professional experiences as notches in a belt, with the aim of creating a sense of appreciation at some future point. But why not let that time be now? At your next client meeting, push that iPad aside and impress through live, personal interaction. And outside the office, don’t confuse capturing your life with enjoying it. Next time you find yourself in the middle of a moment, live it, and leave your phone in your pocket.
Daniel Gulati is a tech entrepreneur based in New York. He is a coauthor of the new bookPassion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders.