How to Keep Reality TV from Ruining Your Life.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: How to keep reality TV from ruining your life, or, 9 tips to make TV-watching a source of happiness.

At lunch today, I was part of a spirited conversation on the pros and cons of reality TV. That’s a broad category, of course, covering a wide range of shows from The Real Housewives to American Idol to Jersey Shore to Project Runway. My older daughter loves that show where they do fancy cake decorations — what’s it called?

TV is significant for happiness — if for no other reason, because of the time involved. In terms of hours, watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime. Among Americans, it’s the most common free-time activity – for an average of about five hours a day. It’s a source of relaxing fun.

But while television is a good servant, it’s a bad master. It can swallow up huge quantities of our lives, without much happiness bang for the buck.

Here are nine tips for keeping TV-watching a source of happiness:

1. Watch TV with someone else. We enjoy all activities more when we’re with other people, and we tend to find things funnier when we’re with other people. Use TV as an excuse to get together. Sports TV, awards TV, and competition TV, in particular, are a lot more fun to watch with other people. In fact, you can even…

2. Use TV as a bridge. If you’re having trouble connecting with someone – your sweetheart or your teenager, say — try joining that person when he or she is watching TV (even if football or Top Chef isn’t necessarily your favorite). Watching TV is companionable, you share an experience, you can comment on the action here and there for a bit of conversation…it’s a way of showing someone that you want his or her company and engaging in a low-key, pleasant, undemanding way. One of my resolutions is to Enter into the interests of other people, and lately I’ve been trying to show a greater interest in SpongeBob.

3. Record shows. Recording shows allows you to use your time more efficiently. You can skip the commercials and watch a particular show according to your own schedule and mood. Also, interaction with actual real live people is the most important element to happiness, so you don’t want to leave your friend’s house early because you need to get home to catch a show.

4. Don’t record shows. Anticipation is an important aspect of happiness. Looking forward to a certain day and time so will heighten the pleasure you’ll take in your favorite show. And it’s fun to think that you’re sitting down at the same time with people across the country to see what’s next for those crazy kids on Vampire Diaries. Also, you’ll be able to enjoy reading about it right away (see #5), without worrying about spoilers.

5. Enjoy the commercials. This is particularly easy if you rarely watch TV. An enormous amount of ingenuity and creativity goes into commercials, and they can be fascinating if you pay attention.

6. Learn about TV. The more you know about anything, the more interesting it becomes. Read some TV criticism, read some interviews with the creative people involved in the show, become more knowledgeable.

7. Don’t surf. Especially if you’re feeling frazzled and overwhelmed with multi-tasking, sit down, start watching, sink into the experience, and stay on one channel. Let the show unfold in its time slot, don’t keep switching around to catch bits and pieces of other shows. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.

8. Do surf. One of the joys of watching cable TV is the cornucopia of shows on display. As is oft remarked, “So many channels, yet so little to watch” — but nevertheless I love seeing the variety of sports, music, pop culture, dance, movies of all sorts, old TV shows, religious programs, history…it’s fascinating. (Btw, surfing is so addictive because of the phenomenon of “intermittent reinforcement”: activities that sometimes, unpredictably, do yield a big, juicy reward – “Look, Tootsie is on! — and sometimes don’t – “Is this infomercial really the best thing on TV right now?” — tend to have an addictive quality.)

9. Choose to watch TV. This sounds obvious, but often, we don’t really choose TV, it’s just the easy default activity. Make the effort to ask yourself, “What would I like to do for the next hour?” before you plop down with the remote control.

Bottom line: if you watch TV mindfully and purposefully, it can be a source of happiness, especially if you use it to connect with other people. If you watch it passively, automatically, and for want of anything better to do, it can be a drain on happiness.

Special bonus tip: I’ve found my resolution to Abandon my self-control to be very helpful. In other words, I try to find external props to direct my actions, instead of relying on my all-too-undependable will-power. If you’d like to watch less television, try putting the remote away in a very inconvenient place, and making yourself put it away every time you use it. If it’s a big pain to turn on the TV and to change channels, you might find yourself drifting to other activities that will be more satisfying in the long run.

What have I missed? Do you have other strategies for making sure that TV remains a source of happiness, not a drag on happiness?

* It seems as though there’s an app for everything, and I was particularly delighted to see the app Ben’s Virtues, based on Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues Chart — the chart that inspired my own Resolutions Chart.

* Speaking of my Resolutions Chart, if you’d like to see a copy, as inspiration for your own happiness project, email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com.

  • laura morrison

    Thanks for the tip about the 13 Virtues app!  Similar apps are available for Android phones (“Franklin’s Daily Virtues” and “13 Virtues” to name a couple).  I’ve just downloaded one myself!

    • gretchenrubin

      Gosh, I had no idea! There really IS an app for everything — or several


  • Peninith1

    After 9/11 and a surfeit of disturbing TV, I found myself unable to sleep. When the war began I outright canceled my cable. I still use my TV and Roku to watch movies, and I have HULU available for any TV I feel I want to watch (this turns out to be . . . ZERO). I get my news from NPR and on the internet, so I do not fail to be informed. I am so HAPPY not to be bombarded with artificially hyped controversy, blistering commentary, and endlessly looped horrible events or celebrity trivialities. I do not miss cable TV even a little bit. I understand why many love TV, but I am so over it!

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a perfect example of mindfulness — realizing that although TV may
      be enjoyable for others, it’s not enjoyable for you, and not necessary. So
      no TV!


  • Allanesnavely

    I would say “take  a TV fast”.  It’s a bit much to say NO TV although that may be right for some (I personally get great happiness from watching the Tour de France on TV) however in preparation for watching a bit more TV than usual when the tour starts I have watched NO TV for the past few weeks and filled the time more fun hobbies cycling, guitar, playing with my daughter. 

  • Allen Knutson

    Can’t agree more about the commercials. I haven’t had a TV for ~15 years and have always been amazed. So much more thought and care goes into those 30 seconds than into the 22 minutes surrounding.

  • Hi Gretchen!

    My take on TV is that almost anything is okay taken in moderation. TV, however, should be taken in very limited amounts. I agree that after a long and hard day, sometimes no thinking is just what the body and mind needs. Still, I think there are usually better uses of time, like taking a walk, holding your sweethearts hand and not talking, just enjoying being outside holding hands, walking. But I’ll concede there are times, I suppose, that TV is fine.

    But the time needs to be monitored closely because for every minute watching pretended life on TV, we are not living life ourselves. The typical TV watcher, I presume, isn’t learning anything or developing anything or creating anything or communicating with anyone.

    Again, I’m not a TV absolutist: I watch some news and some history and some science and a movie from time to time. My wife watches cooking and couponing. My daughter doesn’t watch much of anything and my 5-year-old son watches a few educational cartoons most days.

    But I think it’s important to realize what is being missed when the boobtube goes on. It’s a trade-off among other uses of time.

    My guess is that the trade-off is not much worth it very often.

  • Jeanette

    One to add.  Turn the TV on.  Turn the TV off.  We only have the TV on when we are sitting down to watch.  Otherwise we turn the TV off.  I have a friend that have not turned her living room TV off for 20+ years.

    • Wow! It’s hard to imagine living with that constant background noise! I agree–turn it on when watching, and turn it off when not watching.

  • Mariothomas4245

    At the risk of sounding like an old fart (“Hey you kids, get off my lawn!”), I’d like to say that I think reality TV shares a large part in the degradation of American civility.  It all started with shows like “Jerry Springer”, where people are encouraged to expose shameful behavior and attack one another.  Even on “Survivor”, people “win” by being the one to “outwit, outplay, outlast.”  We only got cable recently, when we needed a new phone provider and it was cheaper to bundle, and now have 90 channels filled mostly with cruelty and greed.   No thank you! 

  • Jgwoodster

    I use TV time as multitasking time, ie. I am almost always watching TV and knitting, drawing, tatting, etc. This helps me to dedicate time to my hobbies and keep up with a few shows that I like to watch. Somehow it just feels more productive.

  • gretchenrubin


  • LindseyEcker

    Oh TV, so hard to live without sometimes!  Dancing with the Stars is one I love… today I posted on my blog about dancing through life, which makes me very happy 🙂 You can check out my post at

  • Gwyneth

    I stopped cable when I moved into my new house. My daughter watches TV on Netflix streaming and sometimes I do too. For shows I can’t get through netflix or Hulu I’ve been able to buy a season on itunes. I get to watch Dr. Who and indulge in a modest splurge. It’s $19.95 and I get the new episodes the day after they are aired. I love it!

    • Laura_turner

      We cancelled cable after we had our first child, too, and haven’t missed it – we bought an HD antenna for watching the Superbowl and Stanley Cup, but other than occasional sports rarely watch “live” TV.

      For our older child, we do Netflix streaming as well, and one of best benefits is that it ENDS after the show/episode is over, unlike live TV where something else always comes on, so you have whining when you turn it off.

  • Great post Gretchen and really loved it. I never knew you can learn so many things from just TV box. Thanks for the share….

  • Hersko915

     Gretchen, i’ve loved all your posts until now, and ive been faithfully reading your blog for the last few months- but i highly disagree with this post.
    I have not had a tv in my home for the past 7 years – ever since starting  college. A laptop for wathcing movies and the occasional downloaded tv show, yes. But not a TV. I can not begin to tell you how it has enriched my life. I spend so much more time doing activities i “actively” enjoy. That require me to participate in some sort of way. Whether its yoga, jogging, going out with friends, baking, or reading books. Yes books. My book intake went up drastically when the tv went out. My quality time with my friends when they come over, spent talking, increased for the better.
    When a tv is there, it becomes an excuse – for noise, less personal interaction, and an automatic – time, space and activity filler.
    Instead of finding “better” ways to watch tv, i recommend pple start cutting down on it.
    5 hours average a day??!?!
    Think of all the amazing other things you can be doing with that time…

    • R Meshar

      Hersko915 I completely agree with you. I haven’t had a TV in over 15 years. Research shows that your mind is more active while sleeping than while watching TV. TV is junk food for the mind. What a waste.

    • Claire Maxwell

      I think you’re missing the point of this post. Gretchin is talking about being mindful and purposeful with television watching, which is exactly what you’re doing by not having a TV and watching the occasional show on your laptop. What you have to realise is that this may boost YOUR happiness, but it may not boost others. Other people may be being just as mindful by watching 5 hours of television a day. I gain great happiness and contentment from watching TV, and one of my favourite things to do with friends or family is watch comedy and laugh together. While other people may find another activity more beneficial, it doesn’t really matter. It’s about being mindful of what is good for YOU.

  • bev

    Easy – don’t have a tv 🙂 I’ve been tv free for a year at the end of August and i can’t say i’ve missed it. Although i do occasionally catch up online i dont do what i used to do and spend all day watching nothing. It’s been enlightening.

  • Tracey S

    When I lived at home we had all cable stations and I would totally surf and watch marathons of things just because they were on. The TV was constantly on when I was home, even i I was doing other things. When I got married we didn’t have TV – initially because we couldn’t afford cable and had no reception at home, but later because it just didn’t make sense. We could find everything we really wanted to watch online, and we didn’t end up watching crap all the time because it wasn’t just there when we turned on the TV. We pared down to 1-2 shows each and movies, and we’d go to a friends house to watch Lost live (because being a day late on Lost definitely meant you would get it ruined for you at work before you could go home and watch it). 

    We just moved to a new city and while we still don’t have cable, suddenly we have reception of all the major networks. But oddly, we’ve found we’ve lost our taste for TV. Having to be home at a certain time to watch a TV show? Sitting through all those commercials? Crappy local news programs? Reality shows where they stretch 10 mins of content into an hour? I literally cannot tolerate it any more. I mean, I watch some trashy programs but the whole TV format doesn’t work for me at all. The only station I can watch at all is PBS – I’ll watch a show or two on there 1-2 times a week. 

    Bottom line, taste change and so does the way we consume media! But you can still find a way to waste time even if you don’t “have TV”. My husband went away last weekend and I sunk far too many hours into a BSG marathon on Netflix. 

  • Lynnel

    I grew up without a tv, and for the first 8 years of my married life didn’t have one, but now I can see some value to it- especially with DVR! Love that you only have to watch the commercials you want to (not all those embarrassing ones with 2 teenage sons) and it really does function as a conversation starter with 2 aforementioned sons- whether I join them in learning about weapons, the nature of the universe, survival, eating crazy amounts of food, or many other topics I have no interest in, except as a window to their souls. I was surprised to discover a guilty love of Phineas and Ferb, even, and the times that we all enjoy making popcorn and sitting together, guessing the murderer and why (Monk, why did you have to leave so soon?) are memories for me to treasure. Not too many activities they want to do WITH us anymore, but tv is non-threatening.

  • Funny, but I think almost anything in life is better served when it’s done mindfully, from eating to relaxing. Choosing to do (or not do) things instead of just going on autopilot keeps me from getting hopelessly bored, which is a serious threat to my happiness.

    And Spongebob? One of my favorite guilty pleasures.

  • Lauren

    I love TV! but I too tried not to let it suck up good hours of the day, so i made a little rule (albeit new). I ONLY watch reality television when i’m on the treadmill. Now, it’s my not-so-pleasure. I don’t have a treadmill at home, so if there’s a show coming on that i want to watch, I make an effort to get to the gym. So far it’s working and I’ve been to the gym MUCH more now that i have this rule.

    As for at home, I save the TV watching for show that I really want to pay attention to… i.e., Mad Men, 24, etc.

    • Lauren

      I meant not-so-guilty-pleasure**

  • Reality TV should be called “Lowest Common Denominator” TV, in my opinion. People act as obnoxious as they think they should to get attention. Bleh! I love TV but choose watch I watch.

  • I guess what I would add for me is sort of an extension on your #9. I only choose to watch a TV show that I REALLY want to watch, and avoid all others–even shows I like mildly. In this way, I’m sure to always be entertained during any episode and can always look back feeling I didn’t waste my time and truly enjoyed every minute of TV viewing.

    Also, I tend to watch shows that is not only entertaining, but inspiring. Shows that “speak to me” and teaches me something or inspires me to do something differently, or do something altogether different. And I find this ANYWHERE–even in reality shows. I like to say, reality shows are the 21st century soap operas.

    And speaking of soaps, in relation to this subject and finding value in watching TV shows, I’ll never forget reading online where a huge fan of the soap, “Days of Our Lives” said she is a big fan of  one of the popular characters on the show: Hope Brady. She said she grew up watching her on the soap and when she was a teen, she saw Hope on the show doing an ice skating scene. That scene inspired her to learn how to ice skate! So there you go; sometimes the most seemingly insignificant TV shows can inspire a person to do something new and different, enriching their personal life!

  • theyconnect

    personally i find commercials irritating and i feel like nowadays they are plagued with stereotypes of men and women- especially married couples. i usually mute the tv because i find them so annoying. 

  • Jhunter

    I hate TV…but i love everything else . I find TV upsets me . Its all a lie it seems and so fake.

  • Valerie

    We don’t have cable and where the tv is located it gets no local channels. It’s been this way for at least 6 months. At first it was hard to have no tv but I’ve noticed I get more accomplished that lets me feel good (rather than watching tv for hours and not remembering what I saw the next day). Also my husband doesn’t like tv at all, he’ll leave the room. So when he gets home from work we’re able to spend more time together rather than being totally sucked in by the tv. I don’t really think I’m missing that much. We do have interenet so I can watch one show here or there. But I don’t know if we’ll ever get cable. I like it this way!

  • Pamela

    My husband and I don’t watch a lot of TV, but we do enjoy the occasional show and movies. But the best thing we’ve done to keep TV from eating up a lot of our time is to have it downstairs in the family room. Now when we want to watch it, we have to purposefully decide to go downstairs and turn it on. It’s not just on “all the time.” We also have our treadmill down there in front of the TV, so when it’s too cold (or too hot) to exercise outside, I’ll do so on the treadmill and watch a “Dr. Oz” or “Oprah” that I’ve recorded. But I’d far rather read outside in these lovely summer evenings now!! That REALLY cuts down on the TV watching.

    I also find it helpful to read snippets of current events online instead of watching the news. Too much negativity and violence into the brain is not good “food for thought.”

  • My solution is to no longer own a t.v.  It works perfectly, I don’t waste time, and I’m far happier.  Now and then we watch a movie on the computer.  It works fine.
    There’s so much real life waiting out there beyond the t.v.

  •  Great post!

    I love tv, and so often I hear people telling me that it’s bad for me.  But truthfully I don’t just watch tv, I experience it.  If I’m not watching with someone, I still find a way to share the experience with someone. 

    One of my best friends and I always talk about The Vampire Diaries, even though we’ve never watched an episode together.  There are few things I love more than discussing the motivations of fictional characters; characters in movies, books and even superficial television.  I have great moments tied up in certain tv shows.  LOST helped keep the friendship alive between an ex and I.  Buffy helped me reach out to my boyfriend, back when he was still the guy I had a crush on.  Game of Thrones turned a coworker I never spoke to into a work friend. 

    And what’s great is that some of you are reading my post and smiling at the tv shows I named.  That’s why I love tv. 

  • Takeahappybreak

    I can’t believe the stats regarding TV viewing, hours a day for millions of people, every day. Watching life instead of living it if taken that far I think. I know people who have the TV all the time as a background “noise’ how strange is that. I much prefer soft music, the sounds of nature (when possible) or best of all, blissful quiet. Good points you’ve brought up here Gretchen, thank you.

    I have a blog contest on at Take A Happy Break right now your readers might enjoy:

    I’m asking the question “happiness is…” summed up in one sentence.

    Hope to see lots of your readers there, should be fun!

    Happy Saturday, G

    • Well, when you think about it, unless a person is working online (as I do), people who spends hours on the Internet daily are the same–watching life instead of living it.

      People “live” on social networks… Oh well, it’s their life, if you want to even call it that.

  • Fortunately, I seem to be a lot less enamored with TV these days, and I honestly have never been a fan of reality TV, it’s fun if it’s fun, but pretend-reality/forced/amped up emotions are not my thing.

  • @elizabethcraft

    I save my “bad” shows for the treadmill.  I walk/jogged 72 minutes getting through Bentley’s departure from The Bachelorette! 

  • My family chose to not have basic cable and cable and do DVDS and Netflix.
    It makes us more active in choosing what we watch.    Yes I watch reality TV but I try to make it more educational such as learning about other countries, cooking or shows like Clean house to inspire me to de-clutter.

  • Julinda

    Choose wisely.  I don’t watch reality shows that are full of drama (like those about so-called housewives) because I get caught up in it. 

  • josie

    NOT watching TV news has changed my life. My children noticed I became angry, upset, agitated and hopeless when I watch TV news. There is nothing I can do about any of the horrific,sensationalistic, negative events on TV. They all felt real and personal to me and made me miserable.News commentators have become political, hostily provocative, and sensationalistic. If you must know about an event, read it in the newspaper instead.

  • cathleen

    Re: external props, I canceled my cable and subscribed to Netflix online. My son no longer (can) watch TV, which is great (he’s sort of a “screen” addict anyway), and I waste much less time, which makes me – surprise! – happier. Netflix still allows for bonding with my son, who has among his favorite activities, “sitting on the couch having family time.”

  • cathleen

    Not to mention that I save $40 per month.

  • millions2

    It’s worth considering how the TV became such a prominent fixture in our homes. TV became popular in the 40s and 50s and was promoted as a tool that could unify the family back together after the war. Once it gained popularity, homes were actually restructured to make room for the new device. First, pianos were moved, or seating rearranged to face the TV set, not the fireplace. Eventually, entire rooms were dedicated to the television. No other device has transformed our homes like the television has. It is no wonder we have a hard time escaping it.

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  • yogini

    I only allow myself to watch TV after 9 pm (and I record my shows). That way, i can get other things done that are satisfying before I veg out in front of the TV, and go to bed!
    This all goes out the window on the weekends, but works well during the week…..