Does watching TV make us happy?

In a February 5, 2007 Fortune article, TV is Dying? Long Live TV!, Geoff Colvin reports that last season, the average American watched four hours and 35 minutes of TV each day—the highest amount ever recorded.

The relationship between TV-watching and happiness is something that has puzzled me.

On the one hand, I’ve read some research that people who watch TV felt less active and focused than they did before they started watching.

On the other hand, watching TV is an overwhelmingly popular activity. In the modern world, TV-watching consumes the most time, after sleeping and working.

In the long run, I would think, people watching a lot of TV would be happier if they spent that time engaged in some kind of social activity. Or going to sleep earlier. Or exercising.

And yet they watch TV. Why?

I’ve been trying to identify the factors that make TV-watching rewarding.

If you’re tired, you can just sit down and watch. Other hobbies take more effort and organization and coordination of plans. And you can lounge around with your feet up and your head on a pillow—no sitting at a desk or standing at a work table.

Thinking about my happiness formula—feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right—TV can often make you feel good (if you watch an interesting or funny show) or can alleviate feeling bad (by distracting you from your worries). On the other hand, for many people, TV-watching is itself a source of not feeling right. They berate themselves for watching too much TV.

I’ve increasingly come to the view that happiness contains within it a notion of advancement. (Yes, I know that’s not what Buddhists believe, but at least for Western types, I think that’s true). We’re cheered by the sense of progress, of things are moving forward. That’s why it’s satisfying to see the seasons change; to watch children grow; and to clean your closets. TV feeds into this, with reality shows, game shows, award shows, and sports shows that give a sense of progress.

Also, for some people, TV gives an artificial yet nevertheless satisfying sense of connection. Watching soap operas makes people happier—probably because folks feel like they have (imaginary) friends.

TV lets you chat with people around the water cooler. It provides a way to gossip without being hurtful. It can be a source of expertise, a way to be knowledgeable.

Watching TV is companionable. When the Big Man and I watch “The Office,” we feel like we’re doing something together. We’ve having the same experience, in a way that we aren’t if we’re both reading or working. Perhaps it would be more companionable to be playing backgammon—but I don’t like games. And he doesn’t like putting photos in a photo album.

I need to do more research on this. Some studies show that TV watching drags people’s moods down, but a 2004 study of 909 Texas women showed that watching TV scored high.

To me, the fact that people are overwhelmingly choosing to watch TV suggests that we aren’t finding it to be too much of a downer. Perhaps watching four hours of TV a day isn’t the kind of thing that we think should make us happy…but maybe it does.

That said, maybe other activities would make us even happier.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • When people become intrigued by a fascinating show on television, they will often display behaviors that are almost identical to those that can be observed in the controversial “state” of hypnosis. Negative auditory, visual, and kinesthetic hallucinations, meaning, there is stimuli present that would normally reside within our conscious awareness, that just simply goes unnoticed.
    Many recent studies have shown this state, whether it be called hypnosis, focused attention, or something else that people find acceptable, is extremely useful for a non-pharmacological method of being more comfortable during a procedure, and perhaps even healing more quickly than normal.
    By activating the same neuro-circuitry that occurs during hypnosis, it seems plausible that watching television could serve as a very useful tool for experiencing states that fit under the heading of happiness.

  • Michael

    Both Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Seligman (Authentic Happiness) talk about TV watching as something that usually does not make people happy. In fact, the mental states of most people when watching television is closer to mild depression.
    Csikszentmihalyi believes that most experiences of deep engagement require one to cross over some kind of threshold — you have to go to the gym, try something challenging, take on a new project. TV is the opposite of that — instant gratification. We’re drawn to TV because it’s easy — the easiest thing in the world. But that’s also what makes it unfulfilling.
    It’s the difference between settling in with a bag of potato chips versus taking the time to make a nutritious meal.

  • I’m wondering if you are familiar with Steven Berlin Johnsons book “Everything bad is good for you” (Amazon:
    It explains why TV (among other things) is good for you.
    I have no connection with the author other than being a fan.

  • I find that watching a little TV can make me happy. Watching a show that I like, for example. When I watch more than that I start feeling that I have no life on my own.
    For me the problem most people seem to have with TV is that they tend to think that there are no other things to do in the evenings when there is not much energy left. So they even watch if there’s nothing on that they like. And then, of course, it doesn’t make them happy.

  • Angela

    Over Christmas my sister and I were visiting with some childhood friends. My sister started talking about a reality TV show and our friend said “Don’t be identified by what shows you watch.” I found that interesting as I also have a friend who seems to live and plan her life according to what TV show is on (mostly reality TV). She claims that she is happy, but most of her friends would disagree with her.
    My husband and I don’t watch that much TV – we do those “other things” you mentioned such as exercise, read a book, scrapbook (only me), or my husband works on his Mustang. In our cases, watching a lot of TV doesn’t give us a sense of accomplishment, but a sense of enjoyment and entertainment. And for us, feeling a sense of accomplishment in completing scrapbook pages or recovering seats on a car give us that feeling of accomplishment and hence happiness.
    Yes, these activities also provide enjoyment and entertainment but unlike TV, they come with other attached desires. We’re both perfectionists. TV is enjoyment and entertainment free from any other entanglements.
    On a side note – when our son and daughter come to visit us every other weekend they want to spend the majority of the time
    watching TV and we try to persuade them to play outside or read. The TV keeps them quiet, but I wonder what your opinion is on TV, kids, and happiness.

  • peter vajda

    According to Nielsen Media Research, the average American home now has more television sets than people. Hmmm.
    There are times at the end of some days when I’m fried…and TV comes in handy to just allow me to take a deep breathe and “vege.” Not happy…just content….probably unconscious, too, but I consciously choose that in that moment.
    I guess what’s important is what’s underneath one’s choice of which type of happiness they want…and why?
    However, on the other hand what I experience is how many folks choose to “live” in the fantasy channel called TV…(while others use other numbing methods such as drugs, alcohol, addictive sex, computer games, etc.) as a way to divert their minds and move into an escapist substitute that occupies their attention so that they can avoid facing life responsibilities, or pain or life or relationship challenges.
    In my travels, I often overhear actual conversations about so-called reality shows which, of course, have little to do with reality but you’d never know that from the conversations. These folks are living their own lives “on TV!” Happy ? Hmmm.
    For others, these shows seem to serve as a collective tranquilizer and give people the illusion of community, connection and involvement with others while keeping them isolated. Many folks actually believe they have taken an action in community by voting, in various ways, on who’s the better contestant. In fact, viewers are still left isolated and longing for community. Then, there are those who actually write letters to actors on soap operas as though they are actually participating in real life situations. Happy? Hmmm.
    I guess there’s conscious happiness and unconscious happiness…there’s a feeling state of happiness and an unfeeling, numbing state of happiness…there’s happiness with one’s eyes wide open and there’s happiness with one’s eyes wide shut…

  • Gretchen, maybe there’s another component to happiness, like level of engagement or awareness. Since TV seems to be one of those things that can make you feel good (on the surface), alleviates bad feelings, and it’s no harm no foul. But we often just sink into it and disengage. We literally unplug.
    When the component of awareness is added. There’s another dimension.

  • Kelsey

    Very interesting topic!
    I think TV can make you happier, in exactly the way you’ve described. There are a few shows that my husband and I look forward to, like “The Office” and the “American Idol” audition shows. These provide us with entertainment and something to experience together.
    We’re also big sports fans… so watching our favorite teams gives us great joy. Unless they lose that is 🙂
    On the other hand, mindless television viewing makes me feel bored and lazy. Just last night, “The Office” and “My Name is Earl” were reruns, so I went to the other room and did some thesis research. I’m so busy right now with accomplishing something difficult and rewarding, I’m not going to waste my time on a show I’ve already seen. However, when it’s a new episode, I’ll enjoy it as a way to unwind from my busy day.
    Thanks for making us think about TV, it’s definitely come to dominate our society a bit too much for my taste.

  • I like TV that I can control the personal video recorders or TV on demand gives me that control. It doesn’t make me happy to have to choose to watch a show when it airs, with the commercials.
    But I get the same kick out of shows I enjoy (Ugly Betty, Battlestar Galatica, America’s Next Top Model) the way I get out of a good book. It’s escape – and escape makes me happy. Not all the time and not to an excess.
    Of course when I’m sick then curling up with a whole season of CSI or Scrubs is just what I need.
    So, I guess I’m falling back on the old saying: Everything in moderation, including moderation.

  • I was thinking about this the other evening, and landed on the “imaginary friends” reason. Your imaginary friends are always funny and clever and well informed (I guess, depending what you watch) – and take zero output.
    Ahhh. Turn on the tube, and everybody’s scrambling to catch your interest, make you laugh, make you think, present their wares – while you just sit there. It’s good to be the Queen!

  • losmills

    Your comments are something that I think about often. I often feel guilty when I find myself watching TV too often…even though I enjoy it. However, I like to knit while I watch TV…unless the show is too demanding on my attention (like 24 – turn away for a minute and your lost). My knitting is both relaxing and relieves me of that feeling that I’m wasting time. When I watch a light hearted show without knitting I don’t enjoy it nearly as much.

  • I don’t have friends, so TV fills a few voids for me. It also provides a bonding activity for my family because there are shows that my 14-year-old son comes out of his cave-like room to watch with us. I don’t like to listen to music, but I like to listen to CSPAN Book TV in the background. I almost never watch a complete episode of a show. I’m always writing, reading, doing a craft, or sometimes working while the TV is on. I can’t imagine sitting around watching TV, in part because it would hurt my back to sit that much. The trick is to actively use TV to enhance your life. I visited my mother while Fox News was on, and it was a horrible experience–24 hour news services will definitely make you unhappy. Once when I was ill, I watched QVC because as I flipped past it, I wondered how anyone could stand to watch it. I discovered that the people on QVC are friendly and caring. They build relationships with their audience. Even though they’re acting, they seem genuine. They give lonely people someone to fake bond with.

  • Cindy

    You might find this site of quotes regarding television interesting.
    Just started reading your blog. Interesting. I will stick around as I’m intrigued by the whole notion of “happiness.” You know, I believe the Dali Lama says the purpose of life is “happiness.”
    I’m slowing reading through your archives, so forgive me if I’ve missed this, but have you looked at/talked about a possible inverse relationship between happiness and self-absorption? Sometimes I find I am most unhappy when I seem to be more self-absorbed–not talking pathological, but just being overly self-focused.
    Good writing. Thanks for your efforts!

  • Michael

    I am digging all these comments! Quite a little goldmine of thoughtful and varied responses!

  • Jessica

    I really appreciate your ability to see all the way around an issue. Usually, it seems, people demonize television or give their lives over to it completely.
    On the one hand, I don’t see how a television show like “The Office” is any less an art-form than a film or a record album, etc. There are some really great and interesting things on television and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying them.
    On the other hand, I do think excessive watching of television is part of what’s killed our sense of community in America. I recently read about how the old downtown of Chicago (where I live), full of nightclubs and theaters and dance halls quickly disappeared after the advent of television because people didn’t need to go out to be entertained any more. I find that kind of sad and I think I would have preferred the city as it was before, though I’m too young to have experienced this.

  • teejay

    I think you have to examine the question of whether TV watching makes us happy from a borader perspective. I enjoy comedies, and anytime I get some belly laughs in I’m pretty sure it makes me happier, both in the moment and overall. On the other hand TV watching can easily become the path of least resistance, and I’ll opt out of what might have been much better happiness-generating activities just to sit there and click through the channels all evening.
    But beyond the impact of watching a little or a lot of TV on our individual happiness, I think we should question whether the ubiquity of TV, and the way it shapes our culture and values doesn’t set us up for unhappiness in the first place.
    TV is a medium for branding and advertising, and despite the appearance of variety in TV programming, we can always be sure that the message of TV culture is compatible with advertising. Advertising and shows on TV shape the way people think about their place in the world, how people interact, what lawyers and doctors do at work, how fun SUVs can be if you ever take one out of the city, etc. etc. Advertising in particular aims to create a desire, an artificial need for the product that, in my opinion, is ultimately impossible to satisfy because the purchase never really lives up to the hype in terms of how happy it makes us. And anyway there’s always more to buy.
    The response I often get to this line of argument is basically a “not me” kind of thing. But even if you are too savvy to be affected by advertisements and TV’s cartoonish picture of life, you still have to live in a world full of people that aren’t.
    And I find myself agreeing with Sartre over and over again. “Hell is other people.”

  • Watching TV with my husband is like reading the same book together. We only watch shows such as the CSIs, Bones, and Numb3rs. We like trying to figure out the whodunnit. I think of them as visual detective novels.
    Plus, it gives me something to engage my brain as a I quilt. I enjoy quilting, but I like to either talk, read, or watch TV while doing it. And for the big quilts, watching TV is best.
    Also, we’ve done a lot of watching from the DVDs, which is different from watching live TV. It’s more like movies. But we watch the series we’re caught up on live. So maybe this is a bit different from people watching live TV, news, and reality/comedy shows. It also saves us 15 min. per episode.
    -Mrs. Micah

  • paula wang

    I sold my Tv few monthes ago .just because in my 24 years life ,i lost too much time for watching Tv and definitely it could not bring my life with any good effect .sometimes i think it could turn into a torturing device for wasting your time and made your youth go away .it is time to quit .and do something else healthier instead .