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 people's 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 (the Oscars), and competition TV (American Idol, Survivor), 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 Project Runway 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.
3. Use TiVo. 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 use TiVo. Anticipation is an important aspect of happiness. Looking forward to a certain day and time so 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 the folks on Lost. 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 Antiques Roadshow 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.
What do you think? Have you found ways to make TV a source of happiness -- or not?
*Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you'd like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I'm trying to thwart spammers.) Just write "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.