Gretchen Rubin

The Three Types of Fun, and the secret of why people watch so much TV.

I’ve been thinking a lot about TV and happiness. Research published in Science magazine using the Day Reconstruction Method showed that participants ranked TV-watching very high among their daily activities.

At the same time, studies suggest that for most people, watching too much TV makes them less happy.

Whatever the studies might show, the fact is, people spend a HUGE amount of time in front of a TV set. Watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime and is the greatest use of time, after sleeping and work. In the U.S., people spend about five hours a day watching TV.

But -- how does TV fit into happiness?

I decided that to answer that question, I had to break “fun” into three types:
1. challenging fun
2. accommodating fun
3. relaxing fun

Challenging fun is the most rewarding, but also the most demanding.

Learning to play golf is challenging fun. First you have to learn the equipment, the rules, the vocabulary, the motions. You’re frustrated. You have to do some errands. It takes a lot of time to get any kind of mastery. But slowly it becomes more fun. You’re outside, you’re with friends, you’re gaining mastery, you’re visiting new places—that’s fun! Challenging fun takes patience, time, energy, perseverance, and a long time horizon.

Usually less challenging, but still requiring a fair bit of effort, is accommodating fun.

Going on a family trip to the zoo is accommodating fun. Sure, it’s fun, but you’re really there because you know your kid wills love it. Was it Jerry Seinfeld who said, “There’s no such thing as ‘Fun for the whole family’”? Of course, you don’t just accommodate your kids. Going to a family Thanksgiving dinner, going to a firm outing, going to dinner and a movie with friends, all require accommodation. You’re strengthening relationships, you’re building memories, you’re having fun – but perhaps not as MUCH fun as you’d have if you dictated the terms. Accommodating fun takes a lot of energy, organization, coordination with other people, and, well, accommodation.

Relaxing fun is practically effortless.

Relaxing fun is relaxing. It takes little energy. You don’t have to hone skills or take much action. There’s very little coordination with other people or preparation involved. Sitting by the pool, flipping through magazines, and watching TV are examples of relaxing fun.

Challenging fun and accommodating fun, over the long term, bring more happiness, because they're sources of those elements that make people happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery, an atmosphere of growth. Relaxing fun tends to be passive—by design.

So if relaxing fun is the least fun kind of fun, why is watching TV so popular?

Because, while we get more out of challenging fun and accommodating fun, we also must put more into it.

That’s why I started my Happiness Project by focusing on ENERGY. Many of the activities that bring the most happiness also require a lot of energy.

If you’re not disciplining yourself to get enough sleep and to exercise, for example, you’re likely going to feel exhausted by the time you get to your leisure time. You’re not going to challenge yourself to learn to grow roses, or use Photoshop, or bake bread. You’re not going to organize a bunch of friends to go bowling on the weekend or plan a party for your anniversary. You’re going to plunk down in front of the TV.

It takes energy to juggle your schedule, or attend a class, or talk to strangers, or practice several times a week, or admit your ignorance, or to run errands, or do research.

You may well have identified activities that you think would make you happier in the long run, but you’re too tired to tackle them.

So to boost happiness, if most of your leisure time is dedicated to relaxing fun, try to incorporate some challenging or accommodating fun into your day. In particular, look for activities that involve:
 learning to do something new
 visiting new places (even if it’s just a new store)
 getting together with other people, whether with friends or strangers

If you’re too tired for anything but relaxing fun, work on your energy level:
 go to sleep earlier
 get some daily exercise – just a ten- or twenty-minute walk outside will give you a real boost
 think of something that you’d actually look forward to doing – don’t try to be self-improving or self-sacrificing
 clean out your office, your closet, or your garage – unbelievably energizing!

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My friend Marci Alboher has a great post today on her New York Times blog, Shifting Careers, on how to handle informational interviews. I read her post, as always--and was suprised and pleased to see that I made a guest appearance.

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