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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 04/06/2006

I think Mark Easton’s Happiness Formula on BBC 2 is great. He seems to have made a really good job of presenting some of the evidence underlying Positive Psychology in a fairly popular way. I say ‘seems’ because I must admit I just can’t watch much of it. The simple truth is that I really can’t be bothered with television. Occasionally, a drama series will catch my attention and I’ll try to watch it week after week. Of course, I watch the news quite often but generally just because it is there. If I lived on my own I wouldn’t have a telly at all.

Before I got into reading all the research on Positive Psychology I would simply have said that I don’t watch much TV because I’ve got a life to lead; that I’d much rather do other things - surf the net, write blogs, water the plants, visit my parents across the road, even clean the house – anything other than watch telly as I find it unsatisfying. And it turns out that a majority of people say that they find watching telly unsatisfying – even if they watch something enjoyable. The experts say the problem is that watching TV is too passive. It demands nothing of us other than changing channels or using the off/on switch Indeed psychologists say that when viewing TV our mood could be classed as ‘apathetic’ as it requires so little personal engagement.

TV brings other problems as well. In 'Britain on the Couch' social psychologist Oliver James argues that the media, but particularly television, is responsible for undermining people’s sense of themselves. He argues that comparing yourself with others is a very human thing to do. Before the advent of the mass media a person would have compared themselves with people in their immediate social circle: their sister or the woman at work, for example. Now women are continually urged to compare themselves with glamorous models or TV presenters who are generally super-attractive. In fact they don’t really look like that. The model Cindy Crawford once said that she didn’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford – hours of make-up and touched up photographs were all part of her look. The social comparison problem doesn’t just undermine women. Men too can feel less good about themselves when they are exposed continually to images of successful, good looking men with loads of money and status. Research shows that media exposure also undermines relationships. People are less satisfied with how their mates look if they have been exposed to images of glamorous models and actors.

One of the things I liked about the section of Mark Easton’s series I managed to catch, is that he was prepared to recount evidence which suggested that watching television undermines happiness. One of his interviewees was Professor Robert Putnam, author of the modern classic, Bowling Alone which looks at the decline of community in America. When asked by Mark Easton what could be done to build community and social capital, and therefore happiness, Putnam couldn’t have been clearer: “Switch off television” was his loud reply.

For me one of the most memorable sections of the Happiness Formula was on Bhutan, a small country which is making national happiness the core of its public policy. They introduced TV a few years ago and it has had a very negative effect on the culture – not just an increase in crime and violence – but also a decline in family life. The extended family is still a feature of life in Bhutan but if the scenes from this series were anything to go by, they may still get together but they sit in a big circle glued to Indian soaps.

I quite understand that when people come in from a hard day’s work it is the easiest thing in the world just to plank yourself on the sofa and turn on the television. But the easiest thing to do isn’t always the best thing to do. Making an effort to get out the house, see people, talk, read, get involved in community activities or sport, listen to music, play cards with the kids – just about anything beats spending too much time in front of the telly watching other people’s lives.

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