Why does TV make us unhappy?


In the past, I’ve posted research showing that watching television makes us unhappy. A lot of TV lovers are probably confused as hell.

Research consistently shows that what brings us the most happiness is family and friends.

Television competes with them for our free time and acts as a (poor) substitute:

This paper discusses the role of relational goods and television viewing for individual happiness. Using individual data from the World Values Survey, we find evidence of a positive effect of rela- tionality on life satisfaction, and a negative effect of television viewing on relational activities. Both relationships are strongly significant and robust to the use of alternative indicators of relationality. The results are also robust to estimation by instrumental variables to deal with possible simultaneity. We interpret these findings as an indication that the pervasive and increasing role of television viewing in contemporary society, through its crowding out effect on relational activities, contributes to the explanation of the income-happiness paradox.

Source: “Watching alone: Relational Goods, Television and Happiness” from Economics Department, University of Milan Bicocca

Here’s a better explanation:

The time spent watching television is generally subtracted from communicating with family and friends, participating to community-life, interacting socially, that is relational activities that contribute significantly to our life satisfaction. There is extensive evidence that television viewing has a profound impact on relationships within the family (see e.g. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), leading in particular to less communication and interaction. Television viewing has also been shown to decrease the amount of time spent with friends (e.g. Robinson, 1977). “People no longer sit around and visit. Everywhere you go you have to outtalk TV. TV people have entered your home and life more than people who should be friends and companions” (Steiner, 1983, in Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 108).

TV fills the slot of real relationships so effectively that when our favorite TV shows go off the air, it’s the equivalent of a real life break-up for many of us:

This study examined the responses of television viewers to the potential loss of their favorite television characters. A sample of 381 Israeli adults completed questionnaires, including questions about their relationships with their favorite characters, how they would react if those characters were taken off the air, and their attachment styles. Results showed that viewers expecting to lose their favorite characters anticipate negative reactions similar to those experienced after the dissolution of social relationships. These reactions were related both to the intensity of the parasocial relationship with the favorite character and to the viewers’ attachment style. Anxious–ambivalently attached respondents anticipated the most negative responses. The results are discussed in light of their contribution to attachment research and as evidence of the similarity between parasocial relationships and close social relationships.

Source: “Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity” from Journal of Social and Personal Relationships

Problem is, while TV may take the place of real relationship time it doesn’t do the job nearly as well from a happiness perspective. The people who watch the most TV are the unhappiest, and the happiest people watch less than 30 minutes a day:

The results indicate that high levels of television consumption are negatively related to individual life satisfaction: people who watch less than half an hour of TV per day, used as the reference group, report significantly higher life satisfaction, ceteris paribus, than people who choose any other level of TV consumption.

Source: “Television Viewing, Satisfaction and Happiness: Facts and Fiction” from Dipartimento di Economia Politica Università degli Studi di Milano – Bicocca

Turn off the TV and go see your friends.

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