A week or so ago, we mentioned a recent study published in the journal Science (subscription only) about a new method for measuring happiness.  The study, by Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman and colleagues, attempted to quantify which activities are most enjoyable, and which ones people find least gratifying.  (Kahneman is a pioneer of "behavioral finance,"  a discipline that mixes economics with psychology in order to understand why people don’t always behave as classical economics predicts that they should.)

But when I got around to reading the original article, something seemed amiss:  the coverage of the study that I’d seen in the mainstream press didn’t really match the contents the article itself. 

Most newspapers emphasized a side point—that people were in a better mood when they watched TV than when they were caring for their kids.  Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

Feeling low? Send kids away, watch TV San Francisco Chronicle
What Makes People Happy? TV, Study SaysNew York Times
Study: TV alone more fun than watching kidsLA Daily News
Feeling of good cheer? Maybe it was the TV – International Herald Tribune

Now, there’s no question that the 909 Texas women studied in the article reported more positive feelings, and fewer negative ones, while watching TV than while taking care of their kids.  But it was a narrow margin.  On a scale of 1 to 6 in "positive affect", TV watching scored 4.19, taking care of kids 3.86.  In terms of positive affect, both were near the middle of the pack, not at polar extremes.

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  • In fact, TV watching, so widely touted as the cure to the blues, was actually number 7 on a list of 16 different things you could do with your time, behind sex, socializing, relaxing, praying, eating, and exercising.  Positive affect during sex (or "intimate relations") was 5.1; while socializing with friends, it was 4.59.  By comparison, watching TV (at 4.19) is a downer.

    On the down side, positive affect while commuting to work was a lowly 2.88—making it just about the worst thing you could do with your time.  Working at a job in which there is "pressure to work quickly" was nearly as bad.  In comparison, caring for your kids (at 3.86) is a vacation.

    So the conclusion I draw from this research is not that I should shoo away the kids to spend more time with the comforting blue glow of my TV set.  Quite the contrary, the research is clear:  friends make you happier than FriendsAnd a far better strategy for increasing "positive affect"—a measure of happiness—is to try to spend more time socializing, and less time commuting to pressure-filled jobs.

    So why did all the press coverage tout the benefits of TV over caring for kids?  It probably comes down to the press releases.  This one, from the National Institutes of Health (which funded some of the reseach), actually misstates the findings of the study, calling TV-watching the third most enjoyable activity.  (The press flack who wrote it appears to have misinterpreted a chart.)  This one, from the University of Michigan (the home institution of one of the researchers), uses the findings about children—that parents find childrearing to be rewarding in the abstract, but often tedious from day-to-day—to discuss the benefits of the study’s methods for determining which activities improve people’s moods.  So it seems that the press releases, and not the article itself, set the tone for the story.

    And I suppose that some reporters got caught up in emphasizing the allegedly counter-intuitive:  that happiness is found more in a warm TV than a child’s smile.  But on reflection, I don’t know why the TV-kids comparison should seem counterintuitive.  I have a tantrum-throwing toddler and an infant who doesn’t sleep through the night—so I’m painfully aware that dealing with kids is tough.  And it should come as absolutely no surprise that TV—far and away the most popular form of entertainment in the U.S.—is, at a minimum, mildly enjoyable.

    But by emphasizing a flashy factoid, the articles (or, at least, their headlines) obscured some potentially useful information about how people can actually improve their lives.