What Makes People Happy? TV, Study Says
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 housework.
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 above housework.
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 meaning.
"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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