Does Watching TV Actually Make you Happier?

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Does watching TV make you happier? It certainly distracts, but is more happiness generated by this form of entertainment or by living in the present moment?

In this post on wathing TV and its effects on happiness we take a hard look at the research behind TV watching and happiness, and see if there is actually a correlation between the two

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 connection. 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 connection 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:

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.

SEE 99 Things to do Rather Than Watching TV

This is post 9 of the Month of Happiness. Check out the rest!Day 1: Psychostimulants: They might give you happiness; they might give you a heart attack
Day 2: How to Harness the Power of Laughter: An Easy, Effective, and Infinite Source of Joy
Day 3:  Three Good Things, A Small Gratitude Exercise for a Large Boost of Happiness
Day 4: The Right Way to Fake a Smile For Health and Happiness
Day 5: Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You
Day 6: Ditch Porn – It’s Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids
Day 7: Why I “Remain” an Introvert, Though the Science Suggests Extroverts are Happier
Day 8: Yoga – It Isn’t Just for Female Hipsters
Day 9: Watch More TV; It Makes You Happy!
Day 10: Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps
Day 11: Omega-3 Supplementation – Good For The Heart & Vitamin Shoppe’s Bottom Line
Day 12: Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance
Day 13: One Tab at a Time: 7 Tips to Browse the Web More Mindfully
Day 14: Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble
Day 15: A Story of Change, The 5 Willpower Techniques That Create Action
Day 16: Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?
Day 17: Exercise: Better than Zoloft
Day 18: Relaxation: The Magic Tonic That Cures Headaches & Relieves Indigestion
Day 19: Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
Day 20: Meditation – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Beautiful
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