How of Happiness

The scientific pursuit of happiness

Happiness and Television: What My Family Learned from "Chopped"

Learning patience, creativity, healthy eating and happiness from TV.

Reading Discretion Advised: This post contains minimal mention of scientific research.

A recent University of Maryland study found a whopping correlation between television watching and well-being: Happy people reported spending more than 30% less time watching TV per day than their less happy peers.

A case of confirming the obvious? I am not so sure.

Since 1985, I have mostly hated and disdained TV. I would tune in to the occasional show with my husband or friends, or make exceptions for special cases like the Oscars or coverage of 9-11. But otherwise, TV watching held painful associations for me - garnered as a teen-ager - with not having a life. One time in college, I read parts of my 9th grade diary out loud to my suite-mates, and we laughed hysterically over the fact that 95% of the entries were focused on some exciting plot twist on The Love Boat or the progress of my crush on Three's Company's John Ritter. (Where was mention of school or family or friends - the factors found to be most strongly associated with happiness?)

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So, although I don't feel judgmental about other people enjoying TV - especially these days when it is said that TV writing is far superior to film - I rarely deign to watch myself.

So, imagine my husband's alarm on finding me squeezed between our two kids in front of our flat screen TV (the same one whose purchase I resisted adamantly) watching one cooking show after another. We were delaying dinner, procrastinating on homework, and even shorting sleep. We became obsessed with what Brian Boitano would make, who would be knighted on Iron Chef, which judge on Chopped could top the nasty comment made the week before, who would be ordered to pack their knives on Top Chef, and what local restaurants would be featured in The Best Thing I Ever Ate. (A couple of weeks ago, my husband brought the kids to LA's Grand Central Market for pupusas, then to Joan's on Third for coconut cupcakes, both featured on the show.)

Most days my husband was not happy with this development, and several noisy "debates" took place between my Food Network-possessed children and his desire for a timely and peaceful dinnertime. However, a funny thing happened on the way through the cooking show obsession. What we were seeing on the screen began trickling into our kitchen. The kids suddenly perked up during our weekly visits to the local farmers' market, insisting on checking out exotic fruits and vegetables and, even better, buying, preparing, and eating them. (On our last trip, one selected an Armenian cucumber resembling a snake and the other chose a purple tomato and lemon parsley.)

Therein were planted the seeds for the "Cooking Challenge" phase in our family life. Most nights, our children beg us to stage messy and elaborate food challenges - just like the ones featured on their favorite show Chopped. Once or twice a week, we humor them and select one or two "secret ingredients," which are revealed with as much fanfare as can be generated by lifting a dish towel from a bowl. Last night, the secret ingredients were fennel and pine nuts. Last week, we waged Battle Baguette and before that Battle Potato & Mozzarella Cheese, Battle Brown Sugar, and the unforgettable Battle Apple.

The kids then proceed to create a main dish (which, to our shock and occasional dismay, they actually eat for dinner) from those secret ingredients and random victuals in the pantry and fridge. They do 95% of the chopping and cooking themselves, though we are there to help or give pointers (e.g., pouring boiling water, demonstrating how to separate eggs, completing a protracted chopping task before digits are severed, etc.). After the dishes are finished and plated, we morph into judges, tasting and scoring for presentation (5 points), creativity (5 points), and taste (10 points).

The results - in all three categories - have been stunning. For Battle Baguette, my 10-year old Arpege (she insisted that I use her middle name -- that of a 3-star Parisian restaurant -- so her burgeoning interest in haute cuisine may have been predestined) made French onion soup with caramelized onions and fresh herbs; she then cut out an elliptical hole in the French baguette, poured the soup into it, and melted a piece of Havarti cheese on top. It was delicious. My 8-year old Alexander used the baguette to create a tasty grilled cheese sandwich, with two kinds of cheese, potatoes, grilled onions, and bacon. (Arpege won that round, but it was close.)

What are they learning? How do I count the ways? Fine motor skills from chopping garlic. Multi-tasking from sautéing vegetables in olive oil. (Case in point is their startling realization that you can't just leave a saucepan unattended; this skill requires the need to overcome any tendencies for ADD.) They've honed their organization and math skills, practiced quick thinking, and stretched to develop some original ideas. Our daily conversations are now vocabulary-enhanced, and sprinkled with terms like chimichurri, bok choy, chocolate mole, and poached peaches. And, best of all, my kids are actually eating and enjoying copious vegetables and a variety of other healthful and exotic foods.

Thank you television. Even without John Ritter, you have made me and my family happy and healthy.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness.

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