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Need the key to happiness? Watch less TV

As anyone who knows me (or reads the occasional column I write) may know, I enjoy television. It would be more accurate to say I am fascinated by popular culture as a whole, but I especially enjoy the daily or weekly content provided to consumers by the large media conglomerates for our information or entertainment.

Television can yield happy moments in viewers’ lives, and that’s why we watch. However, does television really make people like me happy? According to a survey conducted by the University of Maryland, it may not.

Of a study of 45,000 people over 35 years, those who identified themselves as unhappy watched more television than those who identified themselves as happy. While ‘happy’ people watch television, they do so in smaller amounts compared to other leisure activities.

Could this mean the source of countless happy moments in my life is actually causing me to become completely miserable? I don’t know about that, and this study is not claiming such, but it’s an interesting thought.

I can see why studies would yield this result. Television is an easy choice: it doesn’t require effort other than remembering to TiVo your favorites (or, if you prefer to live in the olden days as I do, set up the VCR) and it will provide a sense of entertainment, and possibly happiness. You don’t have to be an active participant in a group, such as those self-proclaimed happy participants in the University of Maryland survey who said they went to church.

However, the fulfillment of television watching is questionable. It doesn’t provide a great connection to the outside world, and no matter how fascinating shows may be, they still only allow you to live vicariously at best, and you aren’t really living your own life.

One thing I have learned about television is that you shouldn’t bank all your happiness on the plotlines or general existence of the shows you watch. I learned this the hard way after the Writers Guild of America strike in late 2007, during which most of my favorite shows were forced into reruns.

While I had a great sense of excitement upon the return of the shows I watched, they really didn’t make my life much better and my happiness was fleeting. Recently, the shows I watch are not up to the caliber which they were in earlier years or seasons, and this tends to disappoint me.

Along those same lines, I become frustrated when I hear rumors of an Arrested Development movie happening, only to hear that one actor is preventing it from being made. My life won’t be different with or without that film, but I certainly trick myself into thinking it will make me happier.

I worry that I, and possibly others in this study, base too much of their happiness upon the quality of what they watch. Even though the events on screen are not real (and I include “reality” shows in that description) and our lives will not drastically change if an episode is wonderful or lackluster, we may react as though it has some importance.

Plus, regardless of the quality of the shows we watched, the sheer amount of time they take up in our lives can prevent us from engaging in other facets of life.

An example I point to is the possibly sad fact that I have not missed an episode of either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report since sometime in November 2005. I get nightly laughs as a result of these shows, and they’re a great way to relax after a day’s worth of classes.

However, I did a very rough estimate, and figured out that so far I spent approximately 504 hours from November 2005 to the present watching these two shows, or three full weeks of my life.

Sure, I love these shows, but it could be problematic to spend too much time on them. As a New York Times article about the study states, “The researchers could not tell whether unhappy people watch more television or whether being glued to the set is what makes people unhappy.”

It’s impossible to say any television viewing causes unhappiness, and no one knows where the boundary is between a satisfying amount of television and so much that it consumes your life.

My main source of happiness (as well as a big source of happiness for other people) is actually causing me to feel miserable. While I may be using television to escape the frustrating and sad moments in life, I may also be preventing myself from enjoying life.

They don’t call it the idiot box for nothing.

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