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Here’s a mystery. We spend a huge amount of time with TV. Watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime and is the greatest use of time, after sleeping and work. In the United States, people spend more than four hours a day watching TV. Watching great television can be an enormous source of pleasure. Yet often, channel surfing becomes a default activity that doesn’t add a lot to our happiness, yet we persist in watching, nevertheless.

So how does TV fit into happiness? To answer that question, I had to break “fun” into three types:

1. challenging fun
2. accommodating fun
3. relaxing fun

Challenging fun is the most rewarding and the most demanding.

Learning to play golf is challenging fun. First, you have to learn the equipment, the rules, the vocabulary, the motions. You’re frustrated. You have to do some errands. It takes a lot of time to get any kind of mastery. But slowly, it becomes more fun. You’re outside, you’re with friends, you’re gaining mastery, you’re visiting new places—that’s fun! Challenging fun takes patience, time, energy, perseverance, and a long time horizon.

Usually less challenging, but still requiring a fair bit of effort, is accommodating fun.

Going on a family trip to the zoo is accommodating fun. Going to a family Thanksgiving dinner, a firm outing, dinner and a movie with friends all require accommodation. You’re strengthening relationships, you’re building memories, you’re having fun, but perhaps not as much fun as you’d have if you dictated the terms. Accommodating fun takes a lot of energy, organization, coordination with other people, and, well, accommodation.

Relaxing fun is practically effortless.

Relaxing fun is…relaxing. It takes little energy. You don’t have to hone skills or take much action. There’s very little coordination with other people or preparation involved. Sitting by the pool, flipping through magazines, and watching TV are examples of relaxing fun.

Challenging fun and accommodating fun, over the long term, bring more happiness because they’re sources of those elements that make people happiest: strong personal bonds, mastery, an atmosphere of growth. Relaxing fun tends to be passive—by design.

So if relaxing fun is the least fun kind of fun, why is watching TV so popular?

Because, while we get more out of challenging fun and accommodating fun, we also must put more into it. Many of the activities that bring the most happiness also require a lot of energy, time, and planning. But in the end, they bring more happiness.

So to boost happiness, if most of your leisure time is dedicated to relaxing fun, try to incorporate some challenging or accommodating fun into the mix.

What kinds of challenging or accommodating fun activities do you make sure to include in your day? Do you struggle to limit your time with TV (or any kind of screen)?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

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*Photo Credit: turbotoddi via Compfight cc