Can TV Make Us Happy?
With the National Television Awards tonight and controversy over television programmes filling the papers again, it might be a good time to look at how the television we watch affects our well-being.
Our brains are incredibly susceptible to what we watch, in part because of two bits of biological programming. One is that we're designed to not waste energy, so sitting down and having information come to us feels easy. The other biological quirk is that new experiences register as stronger than familiar ones, we're hard-wired to seek out novelty. Television provides us with both of these things together but, just as a Mars Bar exploits our natural desire to store energy, it's unfortunately down to us to tell our brain when its had enough.
The recent Channel 4 documentary Benefit Street has drawn in huge numbers (4.5 million tuned in to Monday night's episode) and also attracted equally large amounts of scorn. Whether the ill feeling is directed at the makers of the show or the characters depicted in it, research shows that TV that makes us feel negative emotions usually ends up having the worst impact on us.
A study published in the British Journal of Psychology showed three different groups 14 minute segments of TV shows. Each was edited to either be emotionally positive, negative or neutral and the participants' reactions after the segments had finished were recorded. Those that watched the negative TV were significantly more likely to catastrophise elements of their own life: they worried more and fixated on the aspects of their own life they were unhappy with. The study seems to show that whatever we experience when watching television stays with us long after the box has been switched off. If a programme makes us worried or angry then that can easily spill over into how we view our own life. Thankfully, watching 'prosocial' programmes, ones that show real-world problem solving and socialising, can increase our ability to empathise with others and help lift our mood.
In a survey of the 16 most frequent things people do, TV ranked as being the 7th most important. That's where it should be, not ruling our lives but not confined to the cupboard either. The key, as with so much of life, is moderation. So enjoy the National Television Awards tonight, or don't, just make sure you're watching it because you want to.