We know what will make us happy, why do we watch TV instead?

By Christian Jarrett

The luxury microwave meal was delicious, the house is warm, work’s going OK, but you’re just not feeling very happy. Some positive psychologists believe this is because many of us in rich, Western countries spend too much of our free time on passive activities, like bingeing on Netflix and browsing Twitter, rather than on active, psychologically demanding activities, like cooking, sports or playing music, that allow the opportunity to experience “flow” – that magic juncture where your abilities only just meet the demands of the challenge. A new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines this dilemma. Do we realise that pursuing more active, challenging activities will make us happier in the long-run? If so, why then do we opt to spend so much more time lazing around engaged in activities that are pleasant in the moment, but unlikely to bring any lasting fulfilment?

Across two studies, L. Parker Schiffer and Tomi-Ann Roberts at the Claremont Graduate University and Colorado College, surveyed nearly 300 people (presumably US citizens, average age 33/34 years) via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website about what they thought of dozens of different activities: some passive like listening to music or watching movies, others more active and potentially flow-inducing, such as making art or meditating. Specifically, the participants rated how enjoyable, effortful, and daunting they considered the activities to be, as well as how often they engaged in each of them in a typical week. The participants also identified which activities they considered the most and least conducive to lasting happiness.

There was a clear pattern in the participants’ answers: they identified more effortful activities as being more associated with lasting happiness, yet they said they spent much more time on passive, relaxation-based activities, like watching TV. Looking at their other judgments, the key factor that seemed to deter participants from engaging in more active, flow-inducing activities is that they tended to be seen as particularly daunting and less enjoyable, even while being associated with lasting happiness. The more daunting an activity was deemed to be, the less frequently it was undertaken (by contrast, and to the researchers’ surprise, the perceived effort involved in the activity did not seem to be a deterrent).

Schiffer and Roberts consider this to be a paradox of happiness: we know which kind of activities will bring us lasting happiness, but because we see them as daunting and less enjoyable in the moment, we choose to spend much more of our time doing passive, more immediately pleasant things with our free time. Their advice is to plan ahead “to try to ease the physical transition into flow activities” to make them feel less daunting. For example, they suggest getting your gym clothes and bag ready the night before, and choosing a gym that’s close and convenient; or getting your journal and pen, or easel and paintbrushes, ready in advance.

The other thing they suggest is using mindfulness, meditation or some other “controlled consciousness” technique to help yourself to disregard the initial “transition costs” of a flow activity, such as the early pain of a run, and to focus instead on its pleasurable aspects and the long-term rewards.

“Future research is needed in order to empirically back our proposal that preplanning, prearranging, and, and controlled consciousness may aid overcoming the activation energy and transition costs that stand in the way of our true happiness,” the researchers said.

The paradox of happiness: Why are we not doing what we know makes us happy?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

15 thoughts on “We know what will make us happy, why do we watch TV instead?”

  1. Have to truely fundementally disagree with this article. I think it assumes very much that the personality of someone is like that, I assume, of the researchers. For themselves, maybe they love cooking, sports or playing music, that’s their passion, what makes them happy. Great for them. And sometimes we all flop down and watch something junk on TV just cause we’re tired. But this is a very narrow view of the world that I worry edge’s on bashing geniune pleasures. Honestly, while I have on occasion enjoyed cooking when I didn’t have to cook, and I know some people find true culinary joy, for me most of the time it is a chore, and it is not my passion.

    What is my passion? Story telling. Wonderous, imaginative story telling that flows through me more than music or sports ever have. Whether that be a well crafted book, computer game plot, movie or TV show. One of the great Pavlov’s bells in my life? You never see me perk up and listen faster than when I hear the opening notes of the Game of Thrones intro. To be able to watch it, talk about it, discuss it and theorise about brings me geniune pleasure. When I figured out one of the twists in my head once I was nearly jumping for joy with excitment.

    The same is true for many Netliks shows that are so easily dismissed in this article. The Medici: Masters of Florence excites me with intrigue and a love for history that spurred me to find out more about them. Once Upon a Time brings me happy excitment to see how cleverly different plots and stories I’ve always known are woven together in new ways. Breaking Bad means I’ll never look at chemistry the same way again 😉 Jane the Virgin tells a geniunely deep story of three loving strong women in a funny way that reminds me of the pantos I went to as a child. Stories shape us, inform us, let us explore the world around us, and see it in new ways. I’m not saying everyone who watches Netflix will enjoy it as much as I do, but for the positive psychologists who dismiss it so easily, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, it just may open new worlds for you 🙂

    1. I think the ‘barriers to entry’ of watching television are lower – while you might need to engage fully to understand the character arcs and structure of a Game of Thrones episode (if that’s what you want), you’re then analysing, rather than comsuming, and this narrative complexity is designed to be hidden for passive viewers while retaining the emotional payoff. However, the other side is that cooking a meal you cook every week could be passive too, driven entirely by habit, while we think about our jobs or financial worries. I think the use of words like ‘happy’ are unhelpful here. I’m writing a novel and it requires a lot of active concentration to commit to it, but it doesn’t make me happy, it’s a compulsion I feel like I need to scratch. In a good way.

  2. I agree – I love film and good drama. I think the type if thing the researchers are referring is what you could call avoidance viewing e.g. a form of escape from the responsibility of making your own life. Even neglect! Wallpaper peeling, garden beckoning for care, a bucket list as long as your arm – but choosing to sit and watch tv all evening then moaning about how unhappy one is.

  3. There are some really amazing and insightful comments here. I would like to add to them if I may.
    Television is extraneous. It’s a symptom and not the focus.
    Many people have no idea what makes them happy or even what happiness is exactly or even how to know if they are feeling it. Humans are very complex creatures that come with infinite amounts of brain function differences and anomalies. I should know, I’m psychologically and physically in the high anomaly category.
    Because ego is so strong within the “norm” of society, happiness is subjective. For my examples, I will use one side of this spectrum and go to the complete opposite side of the spectrum.
    I believe all addictions are from humans disconnecting from one another in favor of ‘matrix-style’, 3-dimensional, ego, material world over soul, spiritual world programming. So factoring in the symptoms, such as the excessive television viewing or any other excessive or addictive behavior of a sick society and treating ‘that’ is illogical. The “why” is so out in the open that even a writer for the British Psychological Society should see the answer is obvious.
    Many people “think” having a lot of money, owning land and property and collecting and hoarding material objects equates to happiness. For some this may be true. But from what many people have become to acquire all these things, one can clearly see the majority are not happy. Families in which at least one parent kills their entire family and then commits suicide is just one symptom of this dis-ease.
    Now let’s go to the opposite side of the spectrum. Homeless people. My experience of being homeless twice with two children and also conversing with many homeless people over the years, I find they are the closest to happy I have ever seen and felt. No, not all of course. But again, it all comes down to the individual and all the factors throughout their lifetimes combined with genetics that will determine their subjective reality of ‘happiness’ and all of everything else. Personally, I live at what is constituted as “below poverty level”. I am much happier here compared to when I was living on Cape Cod, owned a home and sent my daughter to a private school. Happy for the experience as it taught me that ownership and acquisition was an illusion. What I had in the material world “owned” me. My subjective reality from how my brain and body perceived that lifestyle.
    This has been written about time and time again. It’s never a bad time to review. I’ve said nothing new here that hasn’t been said countless times before.

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