Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize, says study

A new study by sociologists at the University of Maryland concludes that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as very happy spend more time reading and socializing. The study appears in the December issue of the journal Social Indicators Research.

Analyzing 30-years worth of national data from time-use studies and a continuing series of social attitude surveys, the Maryland researchers report that spending time watching television may contribute to viewers' happiness in the moment, with less positive effects in the long run.

"TV doesn't really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does," says University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson, the study co-author and a pioneer in time-use studies. "It's more passive and may provide escape - especially when the news is as depressing as the economy itself. The data suggest to us that the TV habit may offer short-run pleasure at the expense of long-term malaise."


Based on data from time use surveys, Robinson projects that TV viewing might increase significantly as the economy worsens in the next few months and years.

"Through good and bad economic times, our diary studies, have consistently found that work is the major activity correlate of higher TV viewing hours," Robinson says. "As people have progressively more time on their hands, viewing hours increase."

But Robinson cautions that some of that extra time also might be spent sleeping. "As working and viewing hours increase, so do sleep hours," he says. "Sleep could be the second major beneficiary of job loss or reduced working hours."


In their new study, Robinson and his co-author, University of Maryland sociologist Steven Martin, set out to learn more about the activities that contributed to happiness in people's lives. They analyzed two sets of data spanning nearly 30 years (1975-2006) gathered from nearly 30,000 adults:

-- A series of time-use studies that asked people to fill out diaries for a 24-hour period and to indicate how pleasurable they found each activity;
-- General Social Survey attitude studies, which Robinson calls the national premier source for monitoring changes in public attitudes – in-depth surveys that over the years consistently asked subjects how happy they feel, how they spend their time among a number of other questions.


Robinson and Martin found that the two sets of data largely coincided for most activities – with the exception of television.

From the General Social Survey, the researchers found that self-described happy people were more socially active, attended more religious services, voted more and read more newspapers. By contrast, unhappy people watched significantly more television in their spare time.

According to the study's findings, unhappy people watch an estimated 20 percent more television than very happy people, after taking into account their education, income, age and marital status – as well as other demographic predictors of both viewing and happiness.


Data from time-diaries told a somewhat different story. Responding in "real time," much closer to daily events, survey respondents tended to rate television viewing more highly as a daily activity.

"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,' " Robinson says.

The data also suggested to Robinson and Martin that TV viewing was "easy." Viewers don't have to go anywhere, dress up, find company, plan ahead, expend energy, do any work or spend money in order to view. Combine these advantages with the immediate gratification offered by television, and you can understand why Americans spend more than half their free time as TV viewers, the researchers say.

Unhappy people were also more likely to feel they 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). Having too much time and no clear way to fill it was the bigger burden of the two.


Martin likens the short, temporary pleasure of television to addiction: "Addictive activities produce momentary pleasure but long-term misery and regret," he says. "People most vulnerable to addiction tend to be socially or personally disadvantaged. For this kind of person, TV can become a kind of opiate in a way. It's habitual, and tuning in can be an easy way of tuning out."

Source: University of Maryland

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Nov 14, 2008
I don't watch TV, and haven't for the past 24 years except for special events and two things are always apparent to me, first that I am always so shocked by how much graphic horror, fear producing coverage and abusive language there is and I am always offended which makes me not want to watch it, and the other is how mentally numb someone must be to actually subject themselves to that type of programming. Once someone said to me, "Would you let someone in your house who constantly talked about sex to your kids, used foul language constantly, was rude, inconsiderate, demanding and talked down to you without ever allowing you to speak up for yourself? More so, would you allow them back again and again, night after night?" Of course not, but if you watch TV, even good shows because the commercials will get you, then you are doing just that. TV is mental junk food, like twinkies for the brain.

Nov 15, 2008
i registered just to agree with what you said. i have not watched television for only a few years and i agree, it is really offensive, and its on every channel, on everyone's brain

Nov 15, 2008
TV will brainwash you. You may wish to consider yourself as being an "informed" citizen. TV will numb your brain into a passive reality. It will untrain your ability to engage life.

Nov 15, 2008
I totally agree with the findings but how does spending to much time on the computer fit in this study? Is it the same results as the TV or are the results different because of it being interactive? hmmm any thoughts on this???

Nov 15, 2008
Statistics don't suggest causation. The article does get a little into causes for more TV viewing, but then takes conclusions in the other direction.

As the article says, unemployment is one reason for viewing more TV. Both TV viewing and unhappiness will come from being unemployed. Having some form of physical or mental limitation which would make the person stay at home (even something like being very introverted) will cause unhappiness and might add to TV viewing (or computer usage).

Looks to me like the reason people report they are happy with TV and yet aren't happy in general is a lot more consistent with the explanation than any other offered. TV allows escapism and momentarily brightening up an unhappy life.

There may indeed be a danger in that a person who uses TV for happiness will not try other things which can produce more happiness, but I think that there's no reason to jump to the conclusion that TV itself is the cause of unhapiness.

Nov 15, 2008
My mother commented once that back in the early fifties, when for the first time she and her family and many other people who gathered around the only television in her neighborhood saw somebody dying on television, everybody was crying.
Did you cry last night when you saw somebody be killed in cold blood?
I can tell you that if you had been switching television for one hour last night, then most likely >50% you saw somebody loosing his/her life.

Nov 15, 2008
Statistics don't suggest causation.

So the title.
Unhappy people watch TV.
As the title suggests, if you are unhappy then you watch TV.
I feel this is partly correct and the unhappiness here is the beginning of a downward going spiral.

Both cause are true.
Unhappy people watch TV.
Watching TV makes unhappy.

The spiral can start either way.

Nov 15, 2008
I never watch tv, not only it is a terrible waste of time it is also a form of brainwashing and manipulation which is used with great success by politicians and businesses to the detriment of viewers.

Just think about it, how can watching artificially smart, beautiful, rich and happy people who live interesting lives full of romance and adventure not be depressing when you confront it with real life? People have a natural tendency to compare themselves to others and based their self satisfaction on the outcome of this comparison. This process in unconscious and realization that the pictured world is not real is not able to remove this effect completely. This is precisely what politicians and business wants as intimidated people with low self esteem are:

1. easy to control - not a material for leaders

2. work hard to earn $$ trying to achieve the status of role models pictured on tv which is good for taxes and economy

3. spend a lot on various more or less useless "status symbols" which is good for economy and business

And the worst thing of all are commercials, they are brainwashing viewers plain and simple. Specifically designed repetitive portions of information so crafted to be as memorable as possible, they force their way into your brain and replace the things which you put there.

The capacity of the brain is not an unlimited and you don't have much control over what you remember and what you forget. Keep watching tv and dumb slogans and songs from moronic commercials will replace your childhood memories and other more subtle qualities of your personality.

Now to be fair I admit that there are sometimes good and informative programs which are worth watching, but they are very rare and with all those commercials I can't be bothered to look for them.

Luckily for me Internet has all the information I need.

TV steals your life and your personality from you, the effects are subtle but undeniable.

Nov 15, 2008
Luckily for me Internet has all the information I need.

Let's have some self criticism and say it cautiously.
internet is also a source of pathology.
Actually every obsessive neurotic disorder is.

Nov 16, 2008
Ok, clearly none of you know of such thing as balancing entertainment without compromising other life's areas. TV can serve many purposes and it is up to the individual to gage their time management and maintain a healthy lifestyle. For those of you making an argument about commercials, grow up please. Advertiement is present in our daily life with and/ without tv, and I hope you are still able to make rational decisions regardless of whether someone tells you x or y is cool. Personally, I enjoy reading novels, newspapers,and socializing, but I also like to watch shows like Entourage, Weeds, True Blood, Californication, Mythbusters, Ultimate Fighter, Ninja Warrior, Modern Marvels, etc. I fail to see how enjoying tv correlates and/or causes unhappines. One walks a fine line when talking about happiness since this one is sometimes momentary, based on biased self opinions, and subjective to each individual. In my opinion, TV can actually provide a lot of inoformation used for socialzing (i.e. "Did you see the basketball game last night?" or "X character reminds me of john doe", etc.), so tv in itself does not prevent watchers from communicating with other individuals. Do introverted people in general watch more tv? I would guess so, and I would not need some study to confirm it... But does tv causes unhappiness, I disagree...

Superhuman, u argued:
"People have a natural tendency to compare themselves to others and based their self satisfaction on the outcome of this comparison."

You will hear life stories from people you meet and documents you read which may have the same effect, and therefore it is irrelevant to use this argument againt watching television. TV is not the only way in which people are influenced and therefore, it is unfair to label it as a unhappiness creator. Just to advocate in favor of the tv, couldn't I make the opposite case about those superficial individuals who unappily live trying to "keep up with the Joneses" and their materialistic lifestyle (without the need for tv encouragement). In the end, I think anything is acceptable with moderation.

Nov 16, 2008
superhuman wrote:
"The capacity of the brain is not an unlimited and you don't have much control over what you remember and what you forget. Keep watching tv and dumb slogans and songs from moronic commercials will replace your childhood memories and other more subtle qualities of your personality.

Luckily for me Internet has all the information I need."

That's how I feel about the internet! I don't watch TV and I limit time online but the internet also occupies and commercializes my consciousness, limiting my inner life.

Nov 16, 2008
TV watching has been correlated with enhanced consumption, especially in children, it has been correlated with diseases, mental problems, etc. Indeed, TV is assumed to be the channel trough which informational diseases spread, such as eating disorders, depression, violence, etc.

The possibilities on the internet are way higher than on TV, TV offers few hundreds channels, with few programs and lots of advertising. On the other hand, the internet offers millions of possibilities. Although, it is well known that most men spend a lot of time watching pornography and we don't really know the social consequences of that yet.

Very funny the commentators that are angry and defend TV... "1. people suck ... I love TV" right on, he/she proves the paper right!

I am surprised that the TV watchers do not attack books too! they could argue that "books are bad took, if you go and read Hitler you would become violent"

By the way, they are negative correlations between TV watching and IQ...

Nov 16, 2008
Another thing, the contents of TV are brainless, they usually are made for the lowest minds, unlike the internet and books, where you can find huge variation, from the ultra easy to the hardcore.

Steve Jobs wisely commented: "if people want to turn off their brains, turn on the tv, if they want to turn their brains on, turn on the computer"

Nov 16, 2008
Correlation does not suggest causation. Statistics can. It depends on what they are measuring.

As for television, I haven't watched it for years either. When I watch intelligent people sit around talking about people eating cockroaches I know I have chosen correctly. I also find that I have a far more balanced and deeper understanding of political issues when I get my news from print sources rather than sound bites on television.

As a therapist, in working with clients who are chronically depressed I often see this pattern of increased isolation and an increased tendency to sit in their home watching television rather than going out with friends or attending events. They also tend to read much less. However, the question is which came first, the depression or the television watching? Depression tends to cause isolative behavior and impairs concentration and memory, making reading more difficult. It would be interesting to see a study involving people with depression and observing their television watching behavior during a depressive episode and after a depressive episode had been resolved.

I've also noticed with myself and with my clients that watching any form of video, television or internet, affects sleep habits. When reading, one is readily aware of becoming sleepy and closes the book and goes to bed. When viewing video input, it is less obvious when you become sleepy, and it is easy to keep watching since much less cognition is required to passively watch than to read. People end up staying up later instead of going to sleep. It would be interesting to see research on this and how it affects mood.

Nov 16, 2008
This article is biased. It's based on findings by SOCIOLOGISTS in a journal called SOCIAL Indicators Research. They unfairly assume that socialization is good. 1. People suck. 2. Watching tv makes me happy. Suck on that, sociologists.

"They unfairly assume that socialization is good." is YOUR ASSUMPTION, one that serves only to illustrate your lack of understanding as to what sociology is.

Nov 16, 2008
Believe nothing you read or hear without verifying it yourself unless it agrees with your pre-existing world view.

So, ones "pre-existing" beliefs are sufficiently reliable for differentiating between fact & fiction?

Nov 17, 2008
I can see why it happens. I know when I'm feeling down I want to just switch off.. TV is one of the best and easiest ways of doing this.
Socializing I consider the opposite and I only want to go out when I feel happy.
Also watching the news can make you depressed - I avoid the news where ever possible.

Nov 17, 2008
The internet, like tv, has a lot of colorful distractions. It's hard to go back to the real world without so much going on.
It's also like tv very commercialized. It's a huge way to be conditioned in our consumer culture.
And spending time on the internet trains you to skim over things, not to concentrate. You have to weed out a lot of junk. It trains me not to think hard about things. I'm reading multivariable complex analysis and it's harder to understand when my mind is trained for reading stuff on the internet.
There's a lot of superficial information, packaged in little bites so it doesn't take much concentration to read it.
The internet is mass media like tv. You might say it's better because much richer. But that's also addictive. You can spend lots of time looking up trivial things you don't really care about, just because having looking at web pages you've never seen before is somehow promising and exciting.
TV to me is dreck, I just avoid it. But the internet is also something I find I want to use carefully and sparingly. I find time online encroaching on my consciousness too much and I'm trying to deal with that.

Nov 17, 2008
Sociologists are, in my experience, creeps with degrees to justify their creepiness. I quit watching TV six years ago and I gave up reading except to fall asleep at night about the same time. That has left me a LOT of time to concentrate on my creative work. That makes me VERY happy, indeed! :-D

Nov 19, 2008
Really? Consider this: Is the visual presentation of fictional subject matter so different from reading the same subject matter? Sure, i don't let my kids watch TV more than a couple hours a week and i carefully screen what they watch, but my wife and I enjoy a wide variety of TV watching sitting right next to each other. I also have friends over to watch sports events.

I think Sociologists are the problem really. Most of the ones I had to suffer through in college had one or more psychological pathologies which made them incapable of normal human interaction.

Dedicating oneself to trying to aggregate the behaviours and motivations of individuals into groups and then calling it a science is akin to looking for patterns of intent in molecular brownian motion.

I am very happy with my life, my friends, and my family and i enjoy sitting down watching TV with them vice going out and spending gas and money best saved for my children's advanced degrees on frivolous socializing with some whacked wonk's notion of a peer group.

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