We feel better when we look at a photographs of people we love. Need some science to prove it? Here you go: Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles recently published a study showing that looking at photos helps people experience less physical pain.

The experimenters applied painful heat to the arms of female volunteers under several different conditions. The subjects were asked to rate the discomfort they felt while…

(a) holding the hand of their long-term romantic partner (as he sat behind the curtain),
(b) holding the hand of a male stranger (also behind the curtain),
(c) holding a squeeze ball,
(d) viewing the partner’s photographs (taken upon his arrival) on a computer screen,
(e) viewing photographs of a male stranger (ethnicity-matched to the participant’s partner),
(f) viewing photographs of a chair, and
(g) viewing a crosshair.

The subjects reported the lowest levels of discomfort under condition (d), viewing a photograph of their partner. Surprisingly, looking at a picture made them feel better than when they were holding their partner’s hand.

The researchers conclude:

“The ?ndings suggest that bringing loved ones’ photographs to painful procedures may be bene?cial, particularly if those individuals cannot be there. In fact, because loved ones vary in their ability to provide support, photographs may, in some cases, be more effective than in-person support. In sum, these ?ndings challenge the notion that the bene?cial effects of social support come solely from supportive social interactions and suggest that simple reminders of loved ones may be suf?cient to engender feelings of support.”

The study was published in the November 2009 issue of the journal Psychological Science. View a PDF of the report or read more in a UCLA press release. Spotted via The New York Times Well Blog