This Wednesday: 9 tips to make TV-watching a source of happiness.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine tips to make TV-watching a source of happiness.

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 people’s 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 (the Oscars), and competition TV (American Idol, Survivor), 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 Project Runway 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.

3. Use TiVo. 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 use TiVo. 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 the folks on Lost. 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 Antiques Roadshow 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.

Lifehacker never fails to instruct and entertain. I used to feel intimidated by the number of hacks that were utter gibberish to me, because I’m just not tech-savvy enough to understand them, but now I just glide over those and read the posts that resonate with me.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

The happiness of handing in the first draft of my book: strangely muted.

Yesterday afternoon, I emailed my agent the first complete draft of my book, THE HAPPINESS PROJECT. And, I reflected, my research on the nature of happiness told me a lot about my emotions at that moment.

For months, I’d been fantasizing about the moment when I’d be finished with a beginning, middle, and an end. How fabulous I’d feel! How relieved I’d be to hit that milestone! What a relief to know that at least I had a decent framework on which to improve!

But I didn’t get much of a boost of happiness, at all. Why?

The “arrival fallacy” makes us think, “As soon as I finish my draft/get that promotion/buy a house, then I’ll be happy.” Usually, however, hitting that target doesn’t provide that much happiness. Why not?

One reason it doesn’t give a huge happiness boost is that by the time the event occurs, you’ve incorporated it into your life and expectations. In my case, it wasn’t as if I woke up one day and jumped from being one-tenth finished to being completely finished. I closed in on the finish line day by day.

Also, arrival often brings its own worries and responsibilities. Now that I’ve finished my draft, I’ve become a lot more worried about whether it’s any good. Up until yesterday, I was just worried about getting it done.

However, my happiness research has taught me some coping techniques. I’m trying to celebrate this milestone, instead of just brushing it aside. I want to savor the moment and mark it in some way. My mother-in-law gave me a gift certificate for a massage for my birthday, so I’m going to schedule that massage.

Also, because I know I have a duty to be happy, and I know that the people around me are made happy by my happiness, I’m not going to explain to them how handing in my draft actually doesn’t make me very happy. Blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I’m going to underscore the happy feelings it has brought me. “Yes, so great to cross that hurdle, very excited to hear what my agent thinks, so pleased to have tons of time to make it as good as possible,” etc.

So…I’m thrilled I’ve handed in my first draft! It feels so good to cross that milestone! Onward and upward.

Erin at Unclutterer and I come from the same part of the country, and she sent me the link yesterday to Kansas City is in Missouri. All of us who hail from Kansas City, Missouri, fight the unceasing battle to establish the Missouri location of Kansas City. I laughed out loud. My favorite section was the Testimonials — I couldn’t tell if they were fake or real.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Happiness, equity theory, and why we tend to think that we should get what we deserve — and deserve what we get.

One of the most interesting and complicated issues within the study of happiness is the relationship between money and happiness. Although some folks seem content to say, “Money can’t buy happiness,” I think that relationship is a bit more complicated.

Because of my interest in this topic, I read Shira Boss’s fascinating book, Green With Envy. It was interesting in many ways – for example, she seeks to explode the taboo against talking about money, and provides several detailed accouts of people’s money problems, including her own. If you like the blog My Open Wallet, you’ll like this book.

I was most intrigued, however, by Boss’s brief discussion of equity theory – a phenomenon I’d observed in the world, without knowing the name for it.

Equity theory, according to Boss, is the psychological term for our tendency to feel uneasy when we have much more or much less than someone else, without knowing why. People generally have a belief that we get what we deserve – and deserve what we get.

Now, this is obvious when something bad and undeserved happens. People ask “Why me?” when cancer strikes or a hurricane hits.

But people also feel discomfort when something good and undeserved happens. People who inherit a lot of money (as opposed to people who earn a lot of money), for example, or people who are strikingly attractive, see that without any effort on their parts, they’re very fortunate, and that can cause discomfort. (I know, you’re thinking, throw some of that discomfort my way! But while “it’s a good problem to have,” as they say, it does mess with people’s heads.)

The more I think about it, the more interesting equity theory becomes.

It explains, for example, the attraction of the idea of karma, even to people who don’t hold karma as a religious belief. There’s a sense that karma is a force in the world – not just that if you’re nice to people, they’ll be nice to you, etc., but that there’s some force in the universe, like gravity, that operates to bring about just desserts.

It explains the fact that certain professions breed arrogance. If you earn a wildly huge amount of money – say, with a hedge fund – equity theory would mean that you’d want to believe that if you’ve made that much money, you must deserve that much money. You wouldn’t say to yourself, “Right place, right time,” or feel lucky. You’d feel brilliant.

It explains people’s strange reactions to lottery winnings. Think of Hurley on Lost — his lottery winnings made him happy, then made things very strange for him (well, I suppose in his case, it was a bit more than the lottery at work!). But lottery weirdness happens in real life. Consider one woman who, after she won $2.8 million, was sued by her son’s teenage friend, whom she’d asked to pray for her. Equity theory helps explains the lawsuit. It didn’t seem possible that this woman could just win for no reason; she must have earned it in some way – according to the lawsuit, by virtue of the teenager’s prayers.

Have you seen any examples of equity theory at work in the world?

Chris at The Art of Non-Conformity blog did an interesting set of interviews on the question of the financial payoff to following your passion. He was nice enough to include me in the discussion.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Tennyson.

“We needs must love the highest when we see it.” –Tennyson

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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Examine your heuristics.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

I spent a month of my Happiness Project testing possible psychological short-cuts to happiness, and this led me to the concept of heuristics.

Heuristics are “rules of thumb,” the quick, common-sense principles people apply to solve a problem or make a decision. They aren’t “rules for living” that you consciously try to apply; rather, they are deeply imbedded, often unconscious, rules that you use to come to a decision to answer a question or decide a course of action.

Usually heuristics are useful, though sometimes they lead to cognitive bias. Take the availability heuristic: people predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often helpful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?), but sometimes people’s judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. People become very worried about child abduction, say, when in fact, it’s a very rare occurrence.
I realized that I have my own idiosyncratic collection of “heuristics” for making decisions and setting priorities. Well, maybe these don’t fit the precise definition of “heuristics”—but they are rules of thumb that I applied when deciding what to think or how to act, mostly without quite realizing that I was using them. They flickered through my brain so quickly that I had to make a real effort to detect them, but I identified a handful:

My children are my most important priority.
Try to exercise every day.
People don’t notice my mistakes and flaws as much as I think.
The Big Man is my top priority.
“Yes” comes right away; “no” never comes.
Get some work done every day.
Whenever possible, choose vegetables.
I know as much as most people.
Try to attend any party or event to which I’m invited.
My parents are almost always right.
Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.
If I’m not sure whether to include some text in my writing, cut it out.
When making a choice about what to do, choose work.

Looking at these rules showed me something. Several of them were difficult to balance. How could my kids, the Big Man, and work all be top priorities? Also, I was pretty sure that the Big Man operated under the heuristic of “Try to skip practically any event to which I’m invited.” That explained certain ongoing marital debates.

Some of my heuristics were unhelpful. “I don’t have time” ran through my head dozens of times each day. I worked to change that heuristic to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.”

I asked my friends if they had any personal heuristics, and I collected quite a few:
There’s no wrong decision.
Always say hello.
People in business, small or large, will take advantage of you if they can.
What would my mother do?
Actually, this is good news.
Say yes.
This is the fun part.
Do nothing, go nowhere.
Do everything all at once.

What heuristics are shaping your behavior? Though I may be mis-using the term. I mean – what are the rules of thumb that you apply to figure out what to think or do? Not what you WISH you thought (“Always take a moment to appreciate the sunshine”) but what you actually think (“Any parent who misses a school function has bad values”).

On Friday afternoons I usually find myself spending a little time reading all the fun articles that during the week I’m too disciplined to pursue, and I got a kick out of reading this story about the invention of the flying car.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.