Rosie Milner is a MAPP student at the University of East London. A Cambridge University philosophy graduate, Rosie has worked as a policy advisor on a range of social and economic policies, both for the British Government and in the NGO sector. Full bio.
Rosie's articles are here.
Watching television is probably the most common pastime in the world. On average, Americans spend about five hours per day watching TV, while Europeans are glued to the box for over three and a half hours daily.
But not without a little guilt. Most of us realize that the good life doesn’t involve daily doses of Big Brother. Now University of Zurich researcher Bruno Frey has confirmed that sneaking suspicion: watching TV makes us less happy.
- TV focuses on materialistic values, which lowers happiness. Frey found that those who watched large amounts of TV had more materialistic values – which itself lowers happiness – and were less happy with their financial situation, probably because they compared themselves to the rich and famous they saw on the small screen.
- TV takes time away from being social. TV shows contain more violence than real life, which is likely why heavy TV viewers also felt less safe and had less trust in others. These square-eyed folk rate their social lives as less active than their peers – and given the time they spend in front of the television, they’re probably right.
- TV does not fulfill two of three basic human needs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester have concluded that our well-being depends on fulfilling three fundamental human needs: autonomy, competence, and relating to others. Although we generally choose to watch TV autonomously, while watching TV we usually aren’t developing our feelings of competence or spending quality time with other people.
- TV is not challenging enough for true engagement. Mike Csikszentmihalyi from Claremont Graduate University provides a further explanation of why TV is ultimately unsatisfying. We find activities most engaging when they are demanding and we are skilled enough to rise to the challenge – playing an instrument, for instance, or team sports (as described here by Gloria Park). Watching TV doesn’t require any skill, so it usually induces a feeling of boredom or apathy.
Given the downsides of TV watching, why do we keep doing it? Of course, we look out for the occasional gems, and sometimes we find shows which expand our horizons and make us look at the world in a new way. More commonly, TV provides immediate gratification. After a hard day’s work, many of us don’t want a challenge – we want the relaxation and undemanding entertainment which TV provides so well.
Here’s the rub: the couch potato lifestyle has costs, but they’re harder to see than the benefits. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Daniel Gilbert have both shown that we are often poor at predicting the future effects of our choices. In addition to requiring foresight, turning the TV off also requires the self-control to forsake the path of least resistance. But the fact is that watching TV stops us from participating in activities that allow us to develop, and keeps us from spending time with people we care about. These are the things that make life happy and meaningful – and that’s what we should all remember next time we reach for the remote.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. eds. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
Frey, B.K., Benesch, C., & Stutzer, A., (2007). Does TV make us happy? Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 283 – 313.
Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, Allen Lane. (Added later).
Park, G. (2007). How to bake a flow cake. Positive Psychology News.
Two feet watching TV courtesy of radiant guy