New Research: Does Watching TV Make Us Unhappy?

New study investigates the relation between TV watching and positive emotions.

Posted May 17, 2018

When you're young, you look at television and think, There's a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that's not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That's a far more depressing thought (Steve Jobs, Wired magazine, 1996).

The average American spends close to three hours watching television every day.1 What that means it that in a span of, say, eight years, the average American spends the equivalent of one full year (24 hours a day) watching television!

Previous research has found a negative association between TV watching and positive affect—the experience of positive emotional states, high levels of energy, interest, and enthusiasm—but the causal direction of this connection remains unclear.  That is to say there is research support for both the claim that unhappy people are drawn to watching TV, and the claim that watching television causes unhappiness.2

For instance, there is evidence that watching television reduces positive affect. Even when viewing TV programs happens to improve the mood, the effect is temporary and comes at the cost of engaging in alternative (and potentially beneficial) behaviors, such as volunteering, spending quality time with family and friends, and pursuing hobbies.

In addition, TV watching is often an indoor activity and thus prevents us from spending time outside. Research has shown that time spent outdoors, especially in nature, can be quite beneficial for well-being.3

What about the opposite causal direction, is there evidence that lower positive affect encourages increased TV watching?  Yes, there is.

For instance, very happy people, in comparison with unhappy ones, spend more time socializing and significantly less time watching TV.4

Happy people are more likely to seek new and interesting activities, while unhappy people aim to find comfort in the old and the predictable, by watching “familiar TV shows filled with familiar celebrities at their predetermined airing time.”2

The present study, noting the evidence for both causal directions between TV watching and unhappiness, attempted to find a way to clarify this chicken-or-egg question.

Bayraktaroglu et al., the study's authors, examined whether the hours spent watching TV on a particular day could predict positive affect experienced the next day; and vice versa, whether positive affect on a certain day predicted more or less TV watching the following day.

The study’s participants were 1,668 adults (age range = 33–83 years), who, during an eight-day period, were asked to report both their affective states and also the time they spent watching TV.

The results indicated that the duration of TV watching on a particular day did not predict positive affect the following day, but that the level of positive affect on a certain day did predict TV watching the next day. 

Simply put, watching TV did not appear to make people unhappy the next day, but people who were already unhappy were more likely to watch more television the following day.

The authors also found that “being older, female, single, and unemployed as well as having lower income and poorer health predicted longer durations of TV watching.” But even when researchers controlled for these factors, the finding that unhappiness on a particular day predicts more TV watching the next day, still held.

The authors further noted, “If watching TV is used as a distraction from daily hassles, our findings indicate that it is not a particularly effective one.”

But what kind of activity can people do instead, if they want to improve their moods?

Bayraktaroglu and coauthors note that “past work has shown that engaging in cognitively challenging activities...and actively trying to divert attention from emotional stimuli...are far more effective distraction tactics than passively engaging in relatively unchallenging activities—such as TV watching.”

In other words, take a nature walk and try to identify plant life, insects, or birds; discuss an interesting book with a friend over the phone; or maybe read informative articles on a certain website. ;)

References

1. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). American time use survey. Retrieved from www.bls.gov.

2. Bayraktaroglu, D., Gunaydin, G., Selcuk, E., & Ong, A. D. (in press). A daily diary investigation of the link between television watching and positive affect. Journal of Happiness Studies. doi: 10.1007/s10902-018-9989-8

3. Capaldi, C. A., Passmore, H.-A., Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Dopko, R. L. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5, 1-16.

4. Robinson, J. P., & Martin, S. (2008). What do happy people do? Social Indicators Research, 89, 565-571.