Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize

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.”

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25 thoughts on “Unhappy people watch TV, happy people read/socialize”

  1. I tend to find that watching tv is simply a waste of time, unless it has some very good movies that inspires me or very educational programme that i flick through with the remote.

    I’ve also notice that i am a more socialble human being, and i’d rather be out spending time with people or my love ones.

    Tv just drain too much energy and seriously, the advertisement in each channel are such a bloody waste of time. Watching one show is like having 20minutes of advertisement. What would it be like if you had 20minutes of advertisement in 365 days? That would be like 7300 minutes which is equivalent to 5 days gone per year thats 120 hours just on advertisement. Its so stupid. I’d rather spend my time browsing through informative stuff from the net which either entertain me(pleasure) or give me more wisdom with a snap of my finger.

    I don’t know what others think, but i think life is so precious every second. You never know when you will die.

  2. I think it may be more accurate to say that people who are happy, continue to do what makes them happy regardless of the statistics.

  3. (1) VALID HAPPINESS (including love, sense of beauty, symbiosis (good conscience, upholding justice, moral couraging, helping others, teaching…) bravery, etc.) must be the feeling of things being a step better for our propagation.
    (2) WELL-BEING is the ongoing feeling of things going well step by step for our propagation.
    (3) VALID SUFFERING must be the feeling of things being harmful to our propagation and calling us to prevent or rectify it.
    (4) SOUL (including: personality, inspiration, etc.) is the computation results of both our instinct and pre-instinct data-programs in our brain.
    (5) LIFE GOAL is to propagate.

    All these are our instincts (ancestors’ successful experiences saved on DNA).



  4. I personally interact with people all day as an undergraduate. I read about 50% of the day and when I want to relax, watching a funny episode on t.v. is sometimes helpful. I personally believe that I am as happy as a growing undergraduate can be!

  5. Sorry about the misunderstanding, I was commenting about some of the other comments. I did not mean that the actual article was claiming that TV was junk.

  6. Okay, I love to read and I’m not a big fan of watching TV, but saying everything you watch is junk and that only unhappy people watch TV is stretching it too far. There are plenty of extremely funny shows that leave you feeling good long after you stop watching TV, and you can’t tell me that animal planet, the discovery channel, and the history channel is full of lies. Give me a break!

  7. People actually retain significantly less information from watching/hearing it on TV than reading, because reading engages the brain more.

    This is discussed more in-depth here in this podcast:

    Whether it does more harm than good is subject to debate, but I’m certainly better off without being bombarded by annoying commercials, news propaganda, and misinformation.

    The people here who try to justify their time wasted in front of the TV are in denial, the same as people who play video games in excess. Isn’t there something better you could be doing? Sitting idle for hours on end is unhealthy, and this applies to more than just TV viewers.

  8. Allow me to rephrase the findings of this study in the way that I understood it. “People who sit and home at night and do nothing but stare at a box without moving or talking tend to be less excited about life than people who communicate with other humans.” Am I stretching the interpretation, or will that be elaborated upon in the follow-up study?

  9. TV, radio, print, internet, or in person, the medium is less important than the intent of the message provider.
    People are influenced by the information provided to them.
    If the information is negative the impact will be negative regardless of how that information is delivered.
    Individuals or groups with an agenda will use whatever medium they feel best meets their needs in swaying others.
    TV news primarily hypes the negative and conflict.
    TV ‘documentaries’ are not always fact based.
    TV entertainment focuses on the feel-good factor, and keeping us fat, dumb, and happy, literally.
    Those same approaches can be found in the other media and in our social interactions with family, church, workplace, and commerce.
    The best antidote is to maintain a sense of skeptical objectivity.
    And by skeptical I mean ‘show me’; not the ‘can’t be’ of cynicism.

  10. For all those who think information on Tv is better than reading…you got to be kidding. You really think paid for programing is teaching you anything, it teaches you to trust total strangers, who sell you man enhancment stuff, and things we don’t need. It teaches you, its time to go outside. It teaches you to be a pervert, and only look at women as sex opjects. And for the lady who, says, she learned something from tv, get a book, cause everything your watching is fake, every thing is scripted, which means, its not real, the facts many times have been change and modified for the tv, very very few shows, have the facts correct, and if they did, you won’t watch, cause its not entertainment, its the truth, and most of the time its in books…….get a life, I watch too much, but would never never, say I learned anything from the boob tube, thats all it is!!

  11. You have to be careful about interpreting studies like this. From my counseling experience being a therapist, I can usually predict which clients are happier. The sure sign is whether they have good groups of friends or family they feel that support them. Just the fact that people socialize more usually improves mood. This hightened mood removes the need for less emotional escape, in the form of passive television viewing.

  12. This study is interesting, and I can believe it because I know from experiencing this. When I was younger I used to watch a lot of television, and while I was watching TV I felt better, but once I had stopped I was back to my miserable self again. After I moved to college I completely removed TV from my life, because I didn’t have it easily accessible to me. I started to go out more, and to read more. I am also generally happier in the long run, because I am no longer being fed the garbage that is on TV. If I want to watch something I can now selectively watch what I want through websites like hulu, but even then I am more interested in picking up a book or going out and doing something.

  13. “you can’t tell me that animal planet, the discovery channel, and the history channel is full of lies. Give me a break!”

    Where is this claim supported in the article? The article makes no claim about the quality of television content. Nor does the article claim that “everything you watch is junk.” Rather it says that people surveyed described TV as junk (except for their favorite shows). It takes further argument to move from that to the claim that “TV is junk”, and the author of this study has NOT made that claim.

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