Unhappy People Watch More TV Than Happy People, U-Md. Researcher Finds

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy people spend more free hours socializing, reading and participating in religious activities, while unhappy people watch 30 percent more television, according to new research on American life.

In a study that is among the first to compare daily free-time activities with perceptions of personal contentment, researchers found that television hours were elevated for people who described themselves as "not too happy." On average, the down-and-out reported an extra 5.6 hours of tube time a week, compared with their happiest counterparts.

This connection resonated with Subarna Pokharel, 38, a merchant in Greenbelt who watches three to four hours of television a night, surfing between programs about politics and late-night comedy shows. "My wife says, 'Oh, go to bed,' but I'm on the TV until 12 or 1 in the morning," he said.

Thinking about his life, he said he is "not happy." Perhaps television had some role, he mused. "The study could be right," he allowed.

The research does not mean that television causes unhappiness, its authors said, but rather that there is a link that is not yet understood.

"It could be that watching television makes you unhappy, but there is also the question of whether people who are unhappy turn to television as a way to ward off their unhappiness," said University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson, the study's lead author.

The study, published in the December issue of the journal Social Indicators Research, is based on the General Social Survey, with public opinion data from nearly 40,000 people ages 18 to 64, as well as time-use diaries that detail how people spend their days.

Robinson and his co-author, sociologist Steven Martin, concluded that people enjoyed what they watched the previous evening but that those who watched television the longest did not feel as happy about their lives. "We were getting two different signals: In the short term, people could be happy doing it, but in the long term, that could lead to something more negative," Robinson said.

This made sense to Michelle Griggs, 33, of Woodbridge, who watches "House" and "The Mentalist" with her husband, Aaron, but she sees the limits of television, too. "If you spend all of your time watching TV and not living your life, you're not going to be too happy," she said. "You're watching other people's lives."

In all, however, the study found a happy majority. "Not too happy" people accounted for 11 percent of the total. Fifty-five percent were "somewhat happy," and 33 percent were "very happy."

Whether this upbeat outlook will hold steady during the economic meltdown is unclear. Television viewing goes up when work hours go down. Whether this produces additional unhappiness "is the $64 question," Robinson said.

For Juliette Wafo, 30, television has offered a diversion from difficulty. She is newly arrived in the United States, in a tough life transition. "If you watch a good sitcom," she said, "it can increase happiness. It can make you escape from the real world. You can laugh."

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