Can TV Make You Happy?

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin shares nine tips to ensure that television is boosting, and not undermining, your mood

In terms of hours, watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime. Among Americans, it’s the most common free-time activity – for an average of about five hours a day. It’s a source of relaxing fun. But while television is a good servant, it’s a bad master. It can swallow up huge amounts of time, without much happiness bang for the buck. Here are nine tips for keeping TV-watching a source of happiness:

1. Watch TV with someone else. We enjoy all activities more when we’re with other people, and we tend to find things funnier when we’re with other people. Use TV as an excuse to get together. Sports TV, awards TV (the Oscars), competition TV (American Idol, Survivor), cult TV (Sex and the City), and event TV (the finale of Lost) in particular, are a lot more fun to watch with other people. In fact, you can even…

2. Use TV as a bridge. If you’re having trouble connecting with someone – your sweetheart or your teenager, say — try joining that person when he or she is watching TV (even if football or Project Runway isn’t necessarily your favorite). Watching TV is companionable, you share an experience, you can comment on the action here and there for a bit of conversation…it’s a way of showing someone that you want his or her company and engaging in a low-key, pleasant, undemanding way.

3. Record shows. Recording allows you to watch a particular show according to your own schedule and mood. Most important: if you’re sleepy, don’t stay up late to watch TV! Record a show, and finish watching it another time! Since I started my happiness project, I’ve become a sleep nut. Sleep is so crucial to energy, mood, and health.

4. Don’t record shows. Anticipation is an important aspect of happiness. Looking forward to a certain day and time so will heighten the pleasure you’ll take in your favorite show. And it’s fun to think that you’re sitting down at the same time with people across the country to see what’s next on Glee. Also, you’ll be able to enjoy reading about it right away (see #6), without worrying about spoilers.

5. Enjoy the commercials. This is particularly easy if you rarely watch TV. An enormous amount of ingenuity and creativity goes into commercials, and they can be fascinating if you pay attention. Not only that — surprisingly, a study shows that we enjoy TV more when it’s interrupted by commercials.

6. Learn about TV. The more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes. Read some TV criticism, read some interviews with the creative people involved in the show, become more knowledgeable.

7. Don’t surf. Especially if you’re feeling frazzled and overwhelmed with multi-tasking, sit down, start watching, sink into the experience, and stay on one channel. Let the show unfold in its time slot, don’t keep switching around to catch bits and pieces of other shows.

8. Do surf. One of the joys of watching cable TV is the cornucopia of shows on display. As is oft remarked, “So many channels, yet so little to watch” — but nevertheless I love seeing the variety of sports, music, pop culture, dance, movies of all sorts, old TV shows, religious programs, history…it’s fascinating. (Btw, surfing is so addictive because of the phenomenon of “intermittent reinforcement”: activities that sometimes, unpredictably, do yield a big, juicy reward – “Look, Tootsie is on! — and sometimes don’t – “Is this informercial really the best thing on TV right now?” — tend to have an addictive quality.)

9. Last, and most important, choose to watch TV! This sounds obvious, but often, we don’t really choose TV, it’s just the easy default activity. Make the effort to ask yourself, “What do I choose to do for the next hour?” before you plop down with the remote control. In many cases, other activities would take a bit more effort to begin, but would yield more enjoyment in the long run.

Bottom line: if you watch TV mindfully and purposefully, it can be a source of happiness, especially if you use it to connect with other people. If you watch it passively, automatically, and for want of anything better to do, it can be a drain on happiness.

Some people, of course, don’t watch TV at all. How about you? Do you watch TV — or not? Does TV-watching boost your happiness?

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

One comment so far.

  1. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I haven’t had a television for three months now and obviously having it repaired is not high on the list of things to do. I really don’t miss it. Apart from the movies on TCM thre really is nothing any “redeeming value” on television. And you can watch an old movie just so many times.

    The past month, however, I have gone into the living room on Sunday afternoons and sat down in front of the television. And then I get up and get a book. This afternoon I read “Dear George” by George Burns. Hadn’t read it in awhile. His version of “Dear Abby.” Dear Abby he wasn’t. Funny he was. Happiness comes in fleeting moments. And this afternoon, it lasted for more than just a moment  as I remembered the “good old days” when humor didn’t have to be vulgar to be funny. 

    And remembered the good old day of television.  Before the vulgarity of “reality television” arrived. Along with the screeching banshees known as commentators.