Smiley Faces

Smiley Faces by Micadew

Title: What Do Happy People Do?

Author(s): James Robinson & Steven Martin

Publisher: Social Indicators Research

Year: 2008


Topics: Happiness and life satisfaction

Methods: Regression analysis of 34 years of GSS data, including activities and determinants of life satisfaction

What it says: This study looks at the relationships between different ways that people spend their time according to 34 years of data collection in the General Social Survey and how those activities relate to overall life satisfaction. Additionally, it considers how people rate leisure time activities in comparison to each other. Since television occupies substantial portion of Americans’ leisure time, the authors single out television and its effects. Television is rated above work and is above the average, but the authors still consider its ranking to be very low.

Instead of using life satisfaction as the dependent variable, Robinson and Martin use activities as the dependent variable with life satisfaction as an independent variable under the assumption that people with higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness will tend to do higher-rated activities more frequently. Their findings confirmed that socializing and happiness are related, and that increased hours of watching television is associated with a higher likelihood of being unhappy. Other statistically significant activities associated with happiness were socializing with relatives, neighbors, and friends, sex, attending religious services, and reading a newspaper.

They pose two potential hypotheses to explain their findings about the relationship between television and unhappiness:

  1. Television is fine as an activity, but watching a lot of television crowds out other activities that are more enjoyable.
  2. People who watch a lot of television are already unhappy for other reasons and find television to be a refuge from other activities that might amplify their unhappiness.

What I think about it: I understand that this was meant to be a study of just time use as it relates to happiness, but I’m curious about how other determinants of life satisfaction like income, health, and job satisfaction would fit into their model. They mention having controlled for demographics, marital status, and employment, but do not share the results of those model controls in the article. Their choice to use the activity as a dependent variable is also interesting, and seems less intuitive to me than using happiness as a dependent variable, though as they point out, it does seem like a bit of a chicken and the egg relationship.

What it all means: Television is not highly ranked compared to other free time activities, and is associated with unhappiness according to the General Social Survey. This supports other evidence that television is associated with unhappiness, though without a full list of their control variables, it is hard to understand the degree to which television does or does not influence happiness.