At lunch today, I was part of a spirited conversation on the pros and cons of reality TV. That’s a broad category, of course, covering a wide range of shows from "The Real Housewives" to "American Idol" to "Jersey Shore" to "Project Runway." My older daughter loves that show where they do fancy cake decorations — what’s it called?
TV is significant for happiness — if for no other reason, because of the time involved. In terms of hours, watching TV is probably the world's most popular pastime. Among Americans, it's the most common free-time activity — for an average of about five hours a day. It's a source of relaxing fun.
But while television is a good servant, it's a bad master. It can swallow up huge quantities of our lives, without much happiness bang for the buck.
Here are nine tips for keeping TV-watching a source of happiness.
1. Watch TV with someone else.
We enjoy all activities more when we're with other people, and we tend to find things funnier when we're with other people. Use TV as an excuse to get together. Sports TV, awards TV, and competition TV, in particular, are a lot more fun to watch with other people. In fact, you can even …
2. Use TV as a bridge.
If you're having trouble connecting with someone – your sweetheart or your teenager, say — try joining that person when he or she is watching TV (even if football or "Top Chef" isn't necessarily your favorite). Watching TV is companionable, you share an experience, you can comment on the action here and there for a bit of conversation … It's a way of showing someone that you want his or her company and engaging in a low-key, pleasant, undemanding way. One of my resolutions is to enter into the interests of other people, and lately I've been trying to show a greater interest in "SpongeBob."
3. Record shows.
Recording shows allows you to use your time more efficiently. You can skip the commercials and watch a particular show according to your own schedule and mood. Also, interaction with actual real live people is the most important element to happiness, so you don't want to leave your friend's house early because you need to get home to catch a show.
4. Don't record shows.
Anticipation is an important aspect of happiness. So looking forward to a certain day and time will heighten the pleasure you'll take in your favorite show. And it's fun to think that you're sitting down at the same time with people across the country to see what's next for those crazy kids on "Vampire Diaries." Also, you'll be able to enjoy reading about it right away (see #5), without worrying about spoilers.
5. Enjoy the commercials.
This is particularly easy if you rarely watch TV. An enormous amount of ingenuity and creativity goes into commercials, and they can be fascinating if you pay attention.
6. Learn about TV.
The more you know about anything, the more interesting it becomes. Read some TV criticism, read some interviews with the creative people involved in the show, become more knowledgeable.
7. Don't surf.
Especially if you're feeling frazzled and overwhelmed with multi-tasking, sit down, start watching, sink into the experience, and stay on one channel. Let the show unfold in its time slot, don't keep switching around to catch bits and pieces of other shows. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.
8. Do surf.
One of the joys of watching cable TV is the cornucopia of shows on display. As is oft remarked, "So many channels, yet so little to watch" — but nevertheless I love seeing the variety of sports, music, pop culture, dance, movies of all sorts, old TV shows, religious programs, history … it's fascinating. (BTW, surfing is so addictive because of the phenomenon of "intermittent reinforcement": activities that sometimes, unpredictably, do yield a big, juicy reward — "Look, Tootsie is on!" — and sometimes don't – "Is this infomercial really the best thing on TV right now?" — tend to have an addictive quality.)
9. Choose to watch TV.
This sounds obvious, but often, we don't really choose TV, it's just the easy default activity. Make the effort to ask yourself, "What would I like to do for the next hour?" before you plop down with the remote control.
Bottom line: If you watch TV mindfully and purposefully, it can be a source of happiness, especially if you use it to connect with other people. If you watch it passively, automatically, and for want of anything better to do, it can be a drain on happiness.
Special bonus tip: I've found my resolution to abandon my self-control to be very helpful. In other words, I try to find external props to direct my actions, instead of relying on my all-too-undependable will-power. If you'd like to watch less television, try putting the remote away in a very inconvenient place, and making yourself put it away every time you use it. If it's a big pain to turn on the TV and to change channels, you might find yourself drifting to other activities that will be more satisfying in the long run.
This article was provided to LiveScience by PsychCentral.