Does Watching TV Actually Make you Happier?
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Enjoy the present moment.
If I could apply just one of the many things I’ve learned in my two months of studying happiness, that would be it: enjoy the present moment.
Let’s talk about TV.
I’m not a fan. I think it kills brains and destroys dreams. This post was originally going to be a bash TV until it bleeds sort of thing. But as I went through the research to back up my opinion, I realized I was half wrong.
In one study of working moms with children, participants were asked to rate from 0-6 how happy and enjoyable the activities of their previous day were.1
Of their 16 most frequent activities (exercising, childcare, working, shopping, etc…), watching TV was 7th on the list, weighing in with an average of 4.19 out of 6. As you can see in the graph below, the only two activities which rated significantly higher were socializing and intimate relations (which I’m assuming is academic speak for sex).
Another study randomly paged participants throughout the day and asked them how they felt. It also found that TV watching created relaxation and good feelings (much like alcohol consumption).2
Watching TV is very much about enjoying the present moment. When you are watching TV, no longer are you focused on being ‘productive’ or on the stresses of life. You’re just sitting back and enjoying.
TV exploits two biological principles to reliably create good feelings.
One: We are conditioned to conserve energy whenever possible. That is why, as our default, we sit rather than stand, and stand rather than exercise. TV conserves. Doubly so, in fact – TV rests both mind and body. What the body wants it makes enjoyable.
Two: We are conditioned to seek novelty whenever it is reasonably safe and efficient to do so. TV is both. Dopamine is released when we are exposed to new sounds, new images, new people, and new drama. TV provides all four.3 Add in sexual stimulation and you have dopamine draining porn.
This is what I thought going in: TV draws in hundreds of millions of hours of consumption every day because of how easy it is; not because it actually makes people feel good.
Clearly I’m wrong; TV may not put a smile on your face, but it can create quiet contentedness, like a good book.
What this means to me is that like good books, articles, pieces of news, music, pictures, and other easy forms of happiness, TV has its uses.
But here I turn to my cautionary side.
How much is too much?
Some of my friends are unemployed. Thank you recession. Because they have so much free-time, they tend to watch lots of TV and play lots of video games. Should they be spending more time training their skills or looking for a job? Maybe.
If you’re reading this blog, that probably means your version of TV is the internet. Instead of flipping through channels, you flip through blogs. The biological effect is similar.
I’m the same way. For all of you and for myself, I want to know – how much is too much?
After spending several hours pondering the question, I could think of no simple answers.
To explain why, let me illustrate another way of understanding the question.
There are multiple forms of happiness.
Different positive psychology theories have different flavors of happiness, but a simple list would be: good feeling, meaning, engagement, and social connectedness. TV falls under the good feeling category, raising kids or doing well at work under the meaning category, playing the piano or basketball under the engagement category, and connecting socially under the social connectedness category (surprise, surprise!).
I don’t think it’s fair to directly compare the different categories. Although the pursuit of meaning often brings good feeling; it also often does not. We might describe a 40 year old man who has watched 60,000 hours of TV as miserable. That 40 year old man is actually the average American, and he is certainly not miserable.4
He may not be living in a mansion, but he has at least 60,000 hours of good feeling behind him. He was enjoying the present moment, a lot. Certainly a lot more than my investment banking friends who work 16 hours a day.
Make Your Choice
What will you regret when you die? There was nothing about watching too much TV in the list below:
Text version of the video.
At the same time, those who are most fulfilled, those with high well-being that are flourishing, tend to pursue all types of happiness – both meaning and good feeling. A little TV is okay, but too much and your life may not have the meaning you hoped it would, and you may find your dreams unfulfilled.
Make sure you don’t let your biology decide how you spend your free time. Decide for yourself.
1. Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D. A., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2004). A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method. Science, 306(5702), 1776-1780.