[Paleopsych] NYT: What Makes People Happy? TV, Study Says
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What Makes People Happy? TV, Study Says
NYT December 2, 2004
By BENEDICT CAREY
A team of psychologists and economists is reporting today
what many Americans know but don't always admit, especially
to social scientists: that watching TV is a very enjoyable
way to pass the time, and that taking care of children -
bless their young hearts - is often about as much fun as
The findings, published in the journal Science, run
contrary to previous research and to conventional wisdom
about what makes people happy and why, and suggest that the
fundamental realities of money, marriage, and job security
have far less to do with daily moods than factors like
deadlines on the job and sleep quality.
The study also marks the debut of a novel questionnaire
that probes the subtle, moment-to-moment emotions that
constitute an ordinary day. In the new approach, called the
Day Reconstruction Method, people keep a diary of
everything they did during the day, from reading the paper
in the morning to arguing with children or coworkers over
lunch, from running to catch the 6 p.m. bus home to falling
asleep with their socks on.
The next day, consulting the diary, they relive each
activity and, using 12 scales, rate how they felt at the
time, whether hassled, criticized, worried or warm,
friendly and happy.
The study, of 909 women living in Texas, found that in
general, the group woke up a little grumpy but soon entered
a state of mild pleasure that increased by degrees through
the day, punctuated by occasional bouts of anxiety,
frustration, and anger. Predictably, they found that
commuting, housework, and facing a boss rated as the least
pleasant activities, while sex, socializing with friends
and relaxing were most enjoyable.
Yet contrary to previous research on daily moods, the study
found that the women rated TV-watching high on the list,
ahead of shopping and talking on the phone, and ranked
taking care of children low, below cooking and not far
Traditionally, researchers who study well-being have asked
sweeping questions about contentment, trying to determine
the health of relationships or to evaluate coping skills.
In contrast, the new survey method prompts people to relive
a normal day, rating how pleased or annoyed, depressed or
competent they felt while doing specific activities, like
watching TV or commuting to work.
Re-imagining the day's activities, rather than reporting
what they could or should be feeling about them, allows
people to be more honest about their actual enjoyment at
the time, some psychologists said.
"This is a measure of people's mood in the moment, but that
doesn't mean it's the best thing they could be doing," said
Dr. Daniel Kahneman, the Princeton professor of psychology
and public affairs and the lead author of the study. "If we
used adjectives like thrilled, or excited, or involved, we
would be getting different answers."
He added: "But we are trying to get a better idea or sense
of what people's daily lives are actually like, what it is
they do with their time."
One of the most consistent findings in the study was how
little difference money made. As long as people were not
battling poverty, they tended to rate their own happiness
in the range of 6 or 7 or higher, on a 10-point scale.
After controlling for other factors, Dr. Kahneman and his
colleagues found that even differences in household income
of more than $60,000 had little effect on daily moods. Job
security, too, had little influence.
And again, contrary to previous research, the researchers
found that divorcees in the study reported being slightly
more cheerful during the day than did married women.
By far the two factors that most upset people's daily moods
were a poor night's sleep and tight work deadlines.
According to a scale the researchers developed, women who
slept poorly reported relatively little enjoyment even when
relaxing in front of the TV or shopping.
Dr. Richard Suzman, associate director of behavioral and
social research at the National Institute on Aging, said
that if the new survey method proves sensitive to life
changes in further studies, it could also establish quality
of life measures firmly in mainstream medicine, giving
researchers a more complete picture of how new drugs or
medical technologies may enrich or dull the small pleasure
of daily life.
"This instrument should give us a much improved measure of
well-being," Dr. Suzman said. "At the broadest level, it
could help us set up a national well-being account, similar
to the gross national product, that would give us a better
understanding of how changes in policy, or social trends,
affect quality of life."
Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the
University of Pennsylvania and author of "Authentic
Happiness," said that the method also adds a valuable
dimension to the understanding of what constitutes a good
life. One part of it is mood, he said; another is how
engaged people are in what they're doing; and a third is
"You could think of them as three different takes a person
has on his or her life," he said. "When a kid is deciding
what job to take, the questions are: how much positive
emotion will it provide, how engaging will it be, and how
meaningful is the work."
Dr. Seligman, who has been teaching the day-reconstruction
method to some of his students, said that the measure could
also be helpful in therapy. In working with the survey, one
of the students learned that his perception of the day was
largely determined by what happened in the last hour or so
before bed. If he completed just one assignment, even a
small one, he went to bed content and woke up refreshed. If
not, his mood plunged.
"Using these new techniques, we can see patterns, and with
some people it's crucial how they end their day, with
others it's crucial how the day begins," Dr. Seligman said.
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