Life Lessons in the Real World

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Is Television Killing Your Happiness?

plasma2.jpgYour entire life, you’ve heard various reasons why watching too much television is bad for you, and I’m about to give you one more: watching too much TV affects your happiness.

Television commercials – and often the programs themselves – purposefully make you feel unsatisfied in order to trigger your buying impulse.

After all, if you felt satisfied with your Formica countertop, you wouldn’t want to replace it with an expensive granite version, so we have entire programs on HGTV designed to make you wish your kitchen looked cooler, peppered with advertisements from Lowes. The entire experience, starting with the program and extending into the commercial blocks, is designed to sell.

Yes, but does television really kill happiness?

It’s one thing to suggest that advertisers want you to feel unsatisfied with whatever you own, and quite another to suggest that watching television actually makes you unhappy. So let’s look at the facts.

Research conducted with participants from all over the world – China, Russia, The United States, Canada, Australia, Turkey – has established a strong correlation between the high-volume viewing of television and unhappiness. One of the problems, particularly in the United States samples, appears to be that television bombards us with idealistic images of perfection to sell us products, and the intended comparisons are a real buzzkill.

We compare ourselves to the fashion models and their lifestyles, the big houses and fancy cars. We see an advertisement for a new and improved laundry detergent with a giddy family squealing with pleasure at their crisp, clean sheets, when our families never say anything about their laundry unless they’re complaining. We see pictures of new cars driven by accomplished professionals with sexy, happy spouses living in nice neighborhoods.

We see; we compare; we want; we buy.

We think we’re too smart to fall for this sort of thing; we’re not.

The Overflowing Want

Apparently, the seed planted by advertisers has a tendency to sprout, grow, and spill over into our lives like an out-of-control vine covered in thorns. Research shows that watching television lessens the satisfaction we feel toward our income, station in life, and even our physical appearance. And it’s not just the advertisements; it’s the programs themselves, overflowing with images of expensive homes, hot men and women, exotic cars, and beautiful locations designed to put your real life to shame. TV-show creators use these images for ratings, while marketers use them for sales; either way, the side effect is one that extends well beyond our next trip to the mall.

In the words of Psychologist Tim Kasser:

The results suggest that decreased life satisfaction could be a side effect of all the exposure to all different types of idealized images in the media, whether for cars, furniture, or baby powder.

But isn’t it just human nature?

Let’s be clear: show creators and commercial producers are merely playing to the natural desires of the human heart. The root of all this wanting is clearly human nature, and I would never try to convince you otherwise. The media is simply doing what works, and I do not fault them for it.

Furthermore, not all television programs are manipulative. Although it’s clear that shows like I Want That on HGTV are designed to push your envy button, most show creators just want you to watch because more viewers translates into more advertising dollars. And while it’s true that we encounter images in everyday life that cause us to experience similar feelings of envy and inadequacy, it is the field of marketing that has turned the production of these feelings into a science.

Does this mean advertising is evil?

No, advertising is not evil. I run pay-per-click advertisements on this Web Site (my only source of revenue), so believe me when I say that I’m sympathetic to the needs of advertisers and content producers. There is no conspiracy. There is no great shadow of evil. There are merely the interests of the product movers (on the one hand) and the product consumers (on the other), and these interests are sometimes, but not always, compatible. In other words, you can’t count on marketers to care about your psychological wellbeing; you’ll have to take care of that yourself.

A Tentative Solution

We could all stand to become more conscious about the time we spend in front of the television and other forms of media, so that we’re partaking of them only when the content provides actual benefit instead of treating them like pacifiers, mindless companionship, or sleep aids.

Furthermore, I humbly suggest that we would benefit from noting when our consumer buttons are being pushed so we can more easily leave our unhappiness behind once we’ve turned the television off. This is easier said than done, of course; after all, if those feelings weren’t readily available, marketers couldn’t arouse them so easily.

I personally have found it helpful to approach every commercial with an understanding of its basic marketing objectives, and to remind myself that, at the end of the day, whatever they’re selling is just more stuff. And no matter what the commercial implies, whatever stuff they’re selling does not have the power to complete me.

If all else fails, turn the TV off. Disconnect from the media for a while (including this site, I know) and go for a walk. If we all went for a walk every time we felt like watching television, I predict we’d all be a whole lot happier.


13 Responses to “Is Television Killing Your Happiness?”

  • Matt says:

    It has been over two years since I’ve owned a TV so I relate a lot to what you have written. When I do watch TV now I am quite disgusted at some of the things that are shown. A part of me wants to believe that TV has become much worse in the past two years but the truth is that I didn’t notice the manipulation before as I do now.

  • Emon says:

    Yes, television can kill happiness, if you let it. Goes for anything in life. Alcoholic drinks ads come with the caution, “Savor with moderation.” Should have the same for television. It’s us who have the power to turn the damn thing off when we’re done with out entertainment requirement. But we don’t because TV is the cheapest therapist we can afford.

    Just my two cents!

  • The King says:

    Hi John,

    As you know, I’m a big fan of your site. Would you mind if I copy and print your page for educational purposes? No, not plagerism.

    I run a philosophy club in high school and I believe that this would be a great topic to discuss? I wanted to ask you your permission first.

    Thanks. :)

  • JohnPlace says:

    Matt/Emon/King: Thanks for your comments!

    King: If you’re just printing an article as-is (including header and citations) to discuss with your philosophy club, print as many copies as you like. You may have noticed I’ve been redesigning the layout of the site a bit, so please let me know if you have trouble printing any of the articles. IE is generally the most print friendly browser.

  • The King says:

    Thank you,

    Since I did not comment on the article earlier, let me do so now. What you say is true to no bounds. We are intimidated if you want to say, by the television and all the characters. Why do you think people watch Soap Operas, because they want that excitement in their life but don’t have it. Therefor they relate to the character.

  • Jason says:

    I haven’t watched much television for a long time… not since Saturday morning cartoons, I think. It just doesn’t hold my interest, mostly. I do like the show Heroes, but I watch it online, instead, so there is a grand total of something around 2 minutes of ads per episode.

    I do like some of the Discovery channel stuff, though. Not enough to bother with having cable and watching it, however.

  • JohnPlace says:

    I appreciate the comments, everyone!

  • I think that TV only gives very limited happiness. I always feel better for turning it off.

  • tg says:

    This is the first article by you I have read however it seems interesting that I would read it while reading a book titled “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. You might find it a good read, I am enjoying it immensely.
    I do enjoy the TV shows we’ve been watching lately – mostly nature shows, space and nova shows, public television, history shows. I am learning a lot. I do not watch the soaps or cartoons or the sit-coms as I do not enjoy the way people act towards each other on these shows. I do find it sad that even with so many channels to choose from, the Weather Channel many times is the most interesting.
    Thank you for a thoughtful article.

  • Duncan says:

    Computers can do the same. Best is when we get away from any screen and spend face to face time.

  • JohnPlace says:

    tg, tejvan & Duncan: Thank you for the comments! I appreciate your input, and your fellow readers will too.

  • […] cause you to feel unhappy first, or the effect doesn’t work. As John Place says, in his article Is Television Killing Your Happiness?: Research shows that watching television lessens the satisfaction we feel toward our income, […]

  • Doug Rosbury says:

    John: Many people have not yet learned to think for themselves, so there exists a void in them that those wishing to exploit their weaknesses can do so with impunity.You may be correct in suggesting that we take a walk instead of watching tv. However in my opinion, we should examine our thinking and realize the power to not be affected. The practice of detachment can help us to achieve that objective.Then we would not need to resort to avoidance tactics.—Doug

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