How Much TV Does a Happy Person Watch?

Ransom Riggs

As many studies do, it sounds kind of no-duh at first blush -- but according to a new study by sociologists from the University of Maryland, unhappy people spend a lot more time watching television than happy people do. Surprised? No, I wasn't either; but it's thought-provoking to see this idea reflected in the sober light of a scientific study. And it makes me think about my own habits -- how much do I watch?

Let's see -- I can't get enough of Mad Men or The Daily Show, I've been watching Olbermann a few times a week since a month before the election (though less so as political news gets less hot-n-heavy), I've inherited a guilty passion for Kitchen Nightmares from my wife and I always check out 60 Minutes and SNL weekly. When Colbert makes an appearance on my TiVo, I check him out too. I guess that's about it. But then there are the movies I watch and whatever internet-based video I consume in a day, which is difficult to measure since it comes in such fits and starts.

Does that make me a less happy person than someone who watches zero hours of TV per week? Probably not -- it's so subjective. But it does make me think that if I found a way to fill up the remainder of my free time with television-watching, it would be indicative of some gnawing emotional issue that needed resolution (and that the TV-watching was helping me to avoid).

While most large studies on happiness have focused on the demographic characteristics of happy people — factors like age and marital status — Dr. Robinson and his colleagues tried to identify what activities happy people engage in. The study relied primarily on the responses of 45,000 Americans collected over 35 years by the University of Chicago's General Social Survey, and on published "time diary" studies recording the daily activities of participants. "We looked at 8 to 10 activities that happy people engage in, and for each one, the people who did the activities more — visiting others, going to church, all those things — were more happy," Dr. Robinson said. "TV was the one activity that showed a negative relationship. Unhappy people did it more, and happy people did it less." But the researchers could not tell whether unhappy people watch more television or whether being glued to the set is what makes people unhappy. "I don't know that turning off the TV will make you more happy," Dr. Robinson said. Still, he said, the data show that people who spend the most time watching television are least happy in the long run. [link]

What do you think -- when does TV-watching transition from a legitimate activity to an emotional crutch?