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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.

Two Feet Watching TV

Two Feet Watching TV

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

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Jeff Dustin 25 July 2007 - 1:22 am


Just what is the proper role or prescription of television to promote greater life satisfaction?

It is the excessive watching of television that is problematic, not merely watching the occasional program. Yet in order to form a rule of thumb regarding TV viewing, it would be helpful to know at what point the viewer’s satisfaction receives diminishing returns. Is watching one hour of television less pleasing than watching half an hour? What about program content and quality?
Where and when does the TV provide a much needed break from reality and where and when is it unlikely to boost engagement? I can imagine bedridden patients in hospitals and nursing homes whose visitors are scarce. They might have a need for the pleasure of some TV escapism.

The Junk Flow Argument is an irritating fallacy. Flow is flow, just at varying intensities. The JFA, in my opinion, comes from a prejudice against certain hobbies, like playing video games, watching television, or surfing the Internet. Other more socially acceptable hobbies, like painting or other “productive” pastimes are considered skill building and elicit “Real Flow”. It is not what you do to get flow, but how you do it. Look at the meditating Koreans, ballerinas, ice skaters, chess players, on and on the diverse flow-making activities go. Those with clear goals, immediate feedback and all the characteristics of flow production tend to get higher levels of flow. If the flow conditions are lacking, there’s less flow.

For the TV Complaint to have everyday utility there should a rule of thumb to guide our TV watching behavior.

Angus 25 July 2007 - 5:51 pm

Nice piece Rosie, I especially like the Kahnemann linkage as to why we are so reluctant to press the off button (and so suspectible to continuity tricks e.g. volume increases for adverts). It hadn’t occurred to me but you are right it is so pervasive.

MAPP at UEL rocks!


Jeff Dustin 25 July 2007 - 6:12 pm


Hope you feel better quickly…but I gotta ask: how’s the suitcase?

Senia 26 July 2007 - 1:28 am

Great to have you on board!

I really like that your article takes apart the argument against TV and breaks it into its various psychological components – it’s nice to see that it’s not just a general “tv is bad” but more like “here’s what tv does in particular.”

www.thehappinessblog.com 27 July 2007 - 12:58 am

I really enjoyed your piece. I think that television seems to dominate our time and energy. It is sad to think that out level of well-being is so negatively affected by it.
Great work!

Gloria 27 July 2007 - 1:18 pm

Hi and Welcome Rosie!

Thanks to the advances of modern technology like TiVO and DVR, I’ve found ways to optimize the little bit of pleasure I get from watching the tube. I record only the shows I like to watch, and spend about 45 minutes each night watching just those shows. I fast forward through all of the commercials (not to mention to fear-inducing local news flashes!). I’ve found this to be a guilt-free way to indulge in my favorite shows, while still leaving plenty of time in my night to read and write, cook dinner, spend time with friends, and relax.

Thanks for the great post!


Adam Khan 27 July 2007 - 9:11 pm

I would add that watching television news makes it even worse, especially the sense that the world is a more dangerous place.

Television doesn’t make us happy, that’s for sure. And although most people must know that, we watch anyway. Partly because of the immediate gratification, as you say, but also partly because these television producers do everything they can to keep us watching, even against our will. If that means teasing us, they’ll tease. If it means horrifying us, they’ll horrify. And if they don’t, someone else will. They’re in stiff competition for our attention.

To live a good life, each of us has to apply the self-discipline to turn the thing off more often. Good post, Rosie.

Rosie Milner 29 July 2007 - 8:13 am

Thanks for your comments everyone.

When it comes to how much TV is too much, Frey found that people who watch less than 30 minutes of TV per day are happier than those who watch more than 30 minutes – and the major negative impacts are for those who watch over 2.5 hours per day.

I’m not aware of research which has looked at the happiness effects of watching different types of TV content. I suspect this could be important, though – as well as the effects I describe above, the different messages received from different shows may well have an impact on wellbeing. Public service broadcasters such as the BBC should be funding this research in my opinion!

Lastly, Jeff I agree with you about junk flow. I think there’s a tendency among some researchers to regard all positive experiences as flow, so that less challenging experiences are dismissed as ‘junk flow’. I see flow as just one positive experience – meditation and relaxation are others. We all need to relax sometimes – but I think a full life would involve both challenge and relaxation – and if you’re spending 2.5 hours per day watching TV, that might crowd out opportunities for challenge.

Jeff Dustin 29 July 2007 - 11:16 am


Excellent response! I love it when we get to play with ideas and find common ground. I’m glad you newcomers are adding your distinctive voices to the conversation b/c it really does promote all kinds of new thinking and possibilities.

Positive emotions generally produce positive results, so why wouldn’t watching, let’s say a comedy show like Whose Line is It Anyway? if it pumps up your pleasure and maybe you exercise appreciation of excellence while watching it boost your results in life?

I think the key bit is watching too much and too low quality shows, maybe that’s the third variable, the marionetteer behind the TV problem. Relying on TV to provide you with a life!

Kathryn Britton 30 July 2007 - 8:38 pm

I wonder how many of the hours counted are televisions left on in the background while people go about other activities? I think of visits to family members who keep the tube turned on continuously because the noise is soothing to them. I find it very distracting during the visit — the TV screen is an eye magnet for me and I feel rather rude. But I’ve observed that they don’t seem to pay it any mind.

I just got back from a 3.5 week visit to downtown Seattle where we kept the windows open. So I’ve just swapped the ever-present traffic rumble and sirens for tree frogs and cicadas as my evening background noise. After getting used to them, I don’t pay them much mind — unless I’m specifically thinking about listening. I wonder if TV works the same way in many lives.

Just curious.

Rosie Milner 27 August 2007 - 7:16 am

Kathryn, Frey acknowledges this is a problem with his research – it doesn’t distinguish between watching TV as a primary, secondary or tertiary activity (i.e. TV on in the background while cooking and chatting to your husband). Research on this would definitely be useful – my suspicion is that this would be less of an issue, but that even this would not be ideal, e.g. because it limits the attention you give to your husband, which could damage the relationship in the long-term, and of course this kind of TV viewing makes our lives less ‘mindful’.
Best wishes,

Alex 12 May 2008 - 12:48 pm

la television no es mas importante que la puerta por la que sales todos los dias al mundo, en el cual se reproducen escenas que precisamente no son muy agradables. Lo que importa es la educacion con la cual vemos esta television y en definitiva lo que importa somos nosotros, las personas, que somos racionales y no estamos aprovechando este don. Gracias.

Jeff Dustin 12 May 2008 - 10:34 pm


Estoy de acuerdo. La tele nos engana con imagenes falsos robandonos de la vida tan preciosa. Para ser mas preciso, malgastamos aqui en EEUU casi 4.5 horas al dia. Me imagino los pasatiempos en cuales no participo debido a mirar programas. Quizas el optimista diga –Al menos que la calidad de shows es altisima!– Descupeme el sarcasmo.



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