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.