Inner Source

Better health the natural way.

Your Unhappy Brain on Television

TV: Short-term fun, long-term problem.

TS Eliot on TV
TS Eliot on TV
The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely. - T.S. Eliot

Television's role in influencing the mental and physical state of our society has been profound. Most people seem to enjoy coming home at night, and turning on the TV. Like any opiate, it's a way for many to "get away" from the stress of our day. In the short term TV seems to have a relaxing effect. Studies using functional MRI during TV viewing have determined that humorous television programming can activate regions of the brain called the insular cortex and amygdala, which are areas activated and needed for balanced mood (1).

Unfortunately, more long-term use of TV seems to be where the problem comes in: watching television over 2 hours per day and eating while watching television are each associated with obesity (2). In our country, 60 percent of people are obese—and this obesity is a leading cause of a lower life expectancy, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. It has been shown that each extra daily hour of television kids watch is associated with an 8 percent increase in developing depressive symptoms by young adulthood (3).

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Although many people report "lack of time" as a major barrier to regular exercise, the average American adult spends over four hours per day watching television (4,5).

Analysis of over 30 years of U.S. national data shows that spending time watching television may contribute to viewers' happiness in the moment, but the longer-term effects are not good. In these studies, participants reported that on a scale from 0 (dislike) to 10 (greatly enjoy), TV-watching was nearly an 8. Despite these high marks, it seems that the enjoyment from TV was very short lasting, and gave way to discontent. What was found is that unhappy people glue themselves to the television 30 percent more than happy people. Unhappy people report watching 25 hours of television a week while happy people sit for an average of 19 hours (which is still quite an alarming number). These results held even after taking into account education, income, age and marital status. This data from nearly 30,000 adults led the authors of this study to conclude that:

"TV doesn't really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does. We looked at eight to ten 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. TV was the one activity that showed a negative relationship. Unhappy people did it more, and happy people did it less. The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise. (6)

In short, happy people do not watch a lot of TV.

Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc practices in New York, and authored Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Therapies  He can be reached by visiting InnerSourceHealth.com

1 - Moran, J. M., Wig, G. S., Adams, R. B., Jr., Janata, P., & Kelley, W. M., (2004). Neural correlates of humor detection and appreciation. Neuroimage, 21, 1055-1060.

2 - Kay M Johnson, MD, MPH,1,2 Karin M Nelson, MD, MSHS,1,2,3 and Katharine A Bradley, MD, MPH Television Viewing Practices and Obesity Among Women Veterans. J Gen Intern Med. 2006 March; 21(S3): S76-S81.

3 - Christakis DA, Zimmerman FJ. Violent television viewing during preschool is associated with antisocial behavior during school age. Pediatrics. 2007 Nov;120(5):993-9.

4 - Papazian E, editor. New York: Media Dynamics Inc; 2003. TV Dimensions.

5 - New York: Nielsen Media Research; 2003. Nielsen Report on Television.

6 - Robinson J. 2008 Social Indicators Research

Peter Bongiorno is a naturopathic doctor and author of Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Treatments.

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