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Television: Better Than I Thought

Tyler Cowen reports: "Recent research (Kahneman, et.al. 2004) looks at the allocation of time during the day and classifies events according to how much (temporary) happiness they produce.  It turns out that intimate relations, time spent with friends, and television, all appear to make people happier in this sense" [emphasis added]. Who knew television was so great? It seems to me like it's constantly being derided, but it turns out to be on a par with the much-praised friendship and, er, "intimate relations." The same research seems to show that taking care of children sucks, though not quite as much as cleaning the house or spending time with your boss (my boss, obviously, is the exception -- hi Mike!).

I don't watch nearly as many TV shows as I used to, though I think it's mostly been a substitution effect of watching more DVDs which I assume should have the same happiness-generating effects. At any rate, I hereby resolve to do less blogging and more television watching (as soon as this post is done I'm watching the last two episodes of season two of The Wire). And then, of course, there's the intimate relations thing to work on....

February 26, 2005 | Permalink


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We are informed, thanks to our intermediary, the inestimable Matt Yglesias, that television-watching produces happiness. The Inestimable assumes a somewhat flippant tone in the announcement, but his source – the economist, Tyler Cowen – appears to take... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 1, 2005 6:35:13 AM


Pretty much the only thing worth watching on TV is HBO, and maybe the Daily Show.

The Wire, Deadwood, Carnivale, Entourage, Family Bonds, etc -- Yes, I admit it, HBO gives me pleasure. Not as good as intimate relations maybe, but probably better than the average friend. Or more reliable, anyway.

Posted by: Mahan Atma | Feb 26, 2005 6:13:11 PM

TV is indeed great. Pearls before swine. Besides the obvious diversion it provides for the lonely and sick, it is the defining technology of our age.

To say that the great mass of TV is dreck, and condemn it all for that, is like claiming that vast majority of what we read (and write, mea culpa) is not Shakespeare, and thus reading is a debased activity.

Every child knows far more of the world at large and its peoples, than was ever possible before TV. Some may decry Oprah as gossip and Jerry Springer as worse, but they are hashing out the manners and morals of the day in a format appropriate for democracy.

There is no more democratizing influence in the world today than TV. And TV does more than war ever will to export freedom and democracy around the world. The anti-TV tripe that is so common among the chattering classes is ignorant snobbery.

Television is as important as the printing press. I suspect that much of its bad press is just because of its democratizing effects.

Posted by: epistemology | Feb 26, 2005 6:32:59 PM

Television on a par with "intimate relations"??? Are people out there really having THAT BAD sex? Because, to me, this is absurd -- your sex has to be pretty bad to be the equivalent of television.

On a related note, I find TV has just gone downhill for a long time now. I don't watch ANY regular shows any more, just sports and news and sports and movies.

Posted by: Al | Feb 26, 2005 6:39:01 PM

PBS has many terrific shows, though not the talk shows or news any longer.

Posted by: lise | Feb 26, 2005 6:52:26 PM

All right, I admit I watch Desperate Housewives regularly. The writing is very good, and they had naked boys kissing in a swimming pool last week.

Posted by: Al | Feb 26, 2005 6:58:01 PM

You can't be "doin it" 24/7, Al.

TV is constantly coming up with new shows. I currently enjoy "24" and the new Battlestar Galactica on the Sci-Fi channel.

Posted by: monkyboy | Feb 26, 2005 7:00:23 PM

arrested development, and my buffy dvds.

Posted by: rich | Feb 26, 2005 7:26:51 PM

Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky are/were very bright... but I've always thought more of their experiments than of their interpretation of them. In general I'd say the set-ups are somewhat artificial (limiting for example in the information avaiable to subjects) and so result in decontextualized judgments by those subjects.

In other words, it may not be all that easy to interpret the results of these surveys. Any more than, say, it's easy to interpret the results of political surveys.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Feb 26, 2005 7:42:07 PM

Al can't find any TV worthy of his delicate and enlightened sensibilities, except for men chasing a ball around a field.

Posted by: epistemology | Feb 26, 2005 7:43:14 PM

If only the right hadn't subsidized so many dozens of idiotic TV shows about hard-nosed cops who show us the sense of breaking the rules- and breaking suspects' noses- to get the info they need to solve the case or whatever, maybe we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.

All those shows offer such a distorted view of reality... They make people think that cops have to break the law to do their jobs. In reality, the only thing that kind of behavior coold be necessary for is oppressing people, not enforcing the law... The lawyer dramas nowadays all have a very ridiculous right-leaning bias as well.

75-95% of TV = crap

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 7:45:00 PM

Honestly I can't imagine why anyone wants to go into the movies -- the correlation between artistic (or, more accurately, "artistic") satisfaction, and being able to buy a house, is much better in TV. And who would remember my ideal American, Bugs Bunny, if not for TV?

It is also fun to watch TV with friends, for example on the day when the NFC and AFC championships are back to back.

It was even an okay medium for news until the discovery that there was money to be made there.

Posted by: Delicious Pundit | Feb 26, 2005 7:48:05 PM

Al doesn't know how to behave like a civilized person. He stopped growing up in 7th grade. Get lost, man. You would fit in better in a prison than you do among civilized people. You've really got a Bloods n Crips type mentality.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 7:51:01 PM

This has been a good year for new shows...House, Medical Investigation, Medium, Numb3ers.

Posted by: Michael7843853 | Feb 26, 2005 7:58:10 PM

I don't watch television, but I have two kids, and I'll say of any study that puts treating with young 'uns ahead of housecleaning in joy, well "cleaning the house" definitely needs to demand a recount.

"...your sex has to be pretty bad to be the equivalent of television."

Welcome to marriage, Al. We hope you'll be happy here. How the hell do you think "The Tonight Show" became a hit in an era before the VCR? And, frankly, if my sex life rises to the level of "Joan of Arcadia" or even a Ron Popel wok infomercial, my life will suddenly be worth living.

Posted by: Brian C.B. | Feb 26, 2005 8:11:28 PM

There was a fine essay by David Foster Wallace on the value of television.

Posted by: Dan | Feb 26, 2005 8:15:54 PM

I remember reading in a book by Csikszentmihalyi (the "flow" guy) that TV-watching time correlated with feelings of powerlessless over one's life. I don't think that that's necessarily a contradiction of these results, if we also assume that most people are unhappy...
C would probably also say that TV-watching- like almost any activity- can either be passive and unfulfilling or active (eg carefully observing a good director's cinematography) and fulfilling. It's just that most people use it for the former purpose, a mild opiate.

See, now I've got it all formulated so that I can both fashionably denigrate TV-watching while simultaneously feeling good about watching The Sopranos. Who said that philosophy was useless?
I actively observe audiovisual art
You watch the tube
They sit slackjawed, staring at vacuous nonsense.

Posted by: Carleton Wu | Feb 26, 2005 8:24:46 PM

There are a few things worth the time to watch on TV - I have seen some at other peoples homes -but I tossed the TV out twenty some years ago and sure as hell don't want one in my home now - it is no doubt in the top ten list of reasons for the dumb down of the masses - and so is the computer for that matter - children are smarter, happier and better behaved in the homes with out TV - that is just a fact of life - the best thing Elvis ever did was shoot the damn thing - if you like it - enjoy it - it is like sucking your thumb

Posted by: Dice Chatlain | Feb 26, 2005 8:32:29 PM

"The lawyer dramas nowadays all have a very ridiculous right-leaning bias as well."

Any evidence for this? That's not at all what I've seen.

Posted by: Xavier | Feb 26, 2005 8:40:43 PM

Nobody's mentioned Lost. It's keeping me entertained. I wonder what the fat guy's story is.

You ever watch that British reality show on PBS with Scientists who have to perform these neat tasks using their expertise. They don't even do it for money. Compare that with the pretty idiots eating bull testicles for a few thousand bucks on Fear Factor. the diff is pretty sad/funny.

Curb Your Enthusiasm. the funniest show ever.

Numb3rs is exciting if stupid. Aside from that, I haven't watched any of these countless crime investigative shows. I suspect we could see a glut of forensics majors in the next 10 years.

TV is crack. McLuhan had no idea what a monster it would turn into. "Karl Marx hadn't seen anything yet," said the TV in a Calvin and Hobbes strip. TV has been the worst thing for democracy since the end of the Roman Republic.

According to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, TV has played a large role in the decline of civic participation and all forms of social interaction. TV is the single largest reason why America is so uninformed and apolitical.

But TV, per se, is not the problem, for who controls what is played on tv? Not you or me but boards of directers whose interests are not the same as ours. The media corporations are owned and controlled by the same people who own and control the rest of the Fortune 500. The superwealthy majorshareholders benefit from keeping us dumb and inactive.

Corporate America has hijacked this great invention and is on the way to crashing us towards fascism. We need to take back the public airwaves. Until then, take your crack in moderation and know that it's hurting you.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 26, 2005 9:17:51 PM

here's the comic i was referring to.


Posted by: Phil | Feb 26, 2005 9:27:16 PM

I am addicted to watching Antiques Roadshow on my circa 2002 Sony television. I can't quite make up my mind on the Lost series, but am content to watch the hunky actor portraying the Iraqi guy until I do decide.

Posted by: bianca | Feb 26, 2005 9:27:37 PM

Again, myself I'm a TV hater as well, and I can find good shows that I like to watch, and in fact, they make a few more every year.

Right now? CSI and CSI:Miami, House (my favorite series right now), Scrubs, Daily Show.

Posted by: Karmakin | Feb 26, 2005 9:38:16 PM

Wow, I'm surprised no one has brought up one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes (The Blood) wherein George's attempt to get at the perfect Constanzian trifecta of "intimate relations," food and television get him knocked out of bed.

His mistake, of course, was mixing too many good things--the real key is to mix a good thing with a bad thing, making the bad thing tolerable. Hence the common merging of "taking care of children" with "watching tv." (I have long maintained that Sesame Street's great genius was that it was interesting enough even an adult would really want to watch, actually tempting adults to regularly mediate between the pleasant blue glow and the small child. Totally child-centric ed-tv ignores the third leg of the tripod.) Matt seems to have mixed up hanging out with friends and hanging out with his boss--at least, let's hope Mike thinks that. Cleaning house is supposed to be more fun with friends. And then, some things should just be done on their own.

Yeah, TV can be great. The potentially awful hangover afterward, however, has kept me away for a long time. Somehow the other two are much more internally justifiable.

Posted by: Saheli | Feb 26, 2005 9:48:33 PM

I think the key to the quote is the word "temporary". Television is in fact good for temporary distraction. But I can honestly say that as much as I hate cleaning house, when I do it I enjoy it for days afterward.

Intimate relations (such a quaint term) can also produce temporary happiness. But you can also argue that a long term relationship -- while requiring work and full of ups and downs and occasional boredom -- produces more long term happiness.

In short, anything that is truly valuable requires effort, which by definition is not entirely fun. Television is easy, mildly pleasant, and not worth a whole lot aside from that.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Feb 26, 2005 10:26:36 PM

Xavier, I don't have any evidence as far as collecting anything in little notebooks or what have you. I can barely stand to watch the things...

Honsetly I could think up anecdotes for you, but don't care to spend my precious seconds on this.

Posted by: Swan | Feb 26, 2005 11:13:02 PM

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