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Watching television, channeling unhappiness?

New 30-year study shows unhappy people watch more TV, while happy people read more newspapers and socialize more

Are happy or unhappy people more attracted to television? This question is addressed by a new 30-year analysis1 of US national data of nearly 30,000 adults by John Robinson and Steven Martin from the University of Maryland in the US.

Examining the activity patterns of happy and less happy people in the General Social Survey (GSS) between 1975 and 2006, the authors found that happy people were more socially active, attended more religious services, voted more and read more newspapers.

In contrast, unhappy people watched significantly more television in their spare time. These results also raise questions about recent and previous time-diary data, in which television rated quite highly when people were asked to rate how they felt when they engaged in various activities in "real time" in these daily diaries. The article will be published in the December issue of Springer's journal, Social Indicators Research.

"These conflicting data suggest that TV may provide viewers with short-run pleasure, but at the expense of long-term malaise," said Professor Robinson. He also noted that earlier general satisfaction surveys also showed people rating TV below average as a significantly less satisfying free-time activity on the whole. "What viewers seem to be saying is that while TV in general is a waste of time and not particularly enjoyable, the shows I saw tonight were pretty good."

The authors also noted the many other attractions associated with TV viewing in relation to other free-time activities. Viewers don't have to go anywhere, dress up (or at all), find company, plan ahead, expend energy, do any work-or even pay anything - in order to view. This becomes an unbeatable combination when added to its being quite enjoyable in the short run. This probably accounts for TV taking up more than half of Americans' free time.

The relationship between happiness and television viewing becomes particularly noteworthy, since in theory, engaging in a highly enjoyable activity time like watching television should improve the quality of people's lives.

However, Robinson and Martin's data point in the opposite direction, with unhappy people watching an estimated 20 percent more television than very happy people, after controlling for their education, income, age and marital status - as well as other demographic predictors of both viewing and happiness.

What remains unclear is whether happiness leads to lower viewing or more viewing leads to unhappiness. Robinson and Martin recommend that given the time Americans spend watching television, the question of whether it is responsible for unhappiness needs much closer study and clarification.

Unhappy people were also more likely to have unwanted extra time on their hands (51 percent) compared to very happy people (19 percent) and to feel rushed for time (35 percent vs. 23 percent). Of the two, having extra time on their hands was the bigger burden.

Professor Martin concluded by making a comparison with addiction: "Addictive activities produce momentary pleasure but long-term misery and regret. People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged, with TV becoming an opiate."

1. Robinson JP & Martin S (2008). What do happy people do?
Social Indicators Research; DOI 10.1007/s11205-008-9296-6.
The full-text article is available to journalists as a pdf.

Renate Bayaz | alfa
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