“Watching TV…” by Michael Riedel

Title: Watching Alone: Relational goods, television, and happiness

Author(s): Luigino Bruni & Luca Stanca

Publisher: Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization

Year: 2008


Topics: television, subjective wellbeing, relational goods

Methods: Regression analysis using data from the World Values Study

What it says: Despite what people might think about the relationship between income and happiness, individual happiness does not appear to grow with overall economic growth according to the data in the World Values Survey. Some researchers have explained this by theorizing that people make decisions about consumption by comparing themselves to a reference group, which makes individual utility measurable in terms relative to other people. According to this theory, as long as your means to consume remain unchanged relative to other people, your overall happiness will remain unchanged, even if your consumption level has increased. The means by which television reduces subjective wellbeing, according to Bruni and Stanca, is that watching advertising and content featuring wealthy people inspires dissatisfaction among viewers and constant aspiration for more and better things.

In addition to leading to income aspiration, Bruni and Stanca present theories from psychological research that suggest strong interpersonal relationships and time spent with friends and family are key to a strong sense of wellbeing. Since television occupies such a large share of time in the United States and around the world, they argue that time spent watching television crowds out time that could be spent on activities with friends and family, or consuming “relational goods.”

Using data from the World Values Survey, which includes data from about 80 countries, they control for region of the world, age, gender, income, health, freedom, education, employment status, marital status, personality traits, and beliefs. In addition to considering the impact on life satisfaction descriptively, the authors use 2SLS to check on a possible causal interpretation of the results, with variables for the importance of friends and family and importance of television as instruments for the relational indicators and TV consumption, respectively. Their results show a positive relationship between volunteering and social activities and happiness, and a negative relationship between television viewing and social and volunteering activities. Using these results, they argue that, as countries’ wealth increases, people tend to over-consume material goods and under consume relational goods that would increase their life satisfaction to keep on an equal level of consumption as their neighbors. Since respondents’ tendency to participate in volunteer activities and interact socially with friends and family decreases as hours of television watched per day increases, their theory follows that one of the means by which life satisfaction does not increase with income is that television causes people to stay on the “relational treadmill” of failing to increase happiness as income increases.

What I think about it: Two research notes, one published in 2011 by Mitesh Kataria and Tobias Regner, and the other by Lutz Schneider published in 2013, dispute the findings in this paper based on the empirical approach and the interpretation.

Kataria and Regner criticize Bruni and Stanca for their strong interpretation of their findings based on just two regression analyses. They argue that there is significant heterogeneity between countries even within the dummy variables that Bruni and Stanca create based on regions of the world. In their models using data from different countries, they find that television has an overall positive impact on wellbeing, meaning that people who watch television are more likely to report positive wellbeing than people who don’t watch television. Additionally, they do not find evidence that relational activities are more associated with happiness than watching television. They argue that, in models where the direction of the coefficient on television hours is negative, the impact is very small compared to factors like income and health, and that more research into personality traits like neuroticism may be an interesting determinant of wellbeing and television to explore in future research.

Schneider finds an error in the way that Bruni and Stanca classified countries in the WVS and presents new analyses with the corrected classification. Schneider finds a much weakened impact of television viewing with the correct country classification on Bruni and Stanca’s regions, and when considering the significant impact of television viewing with the corrected country classification, the effect is no longer significant. Schenider finds more validity in Bruni & Stanca’s theoretical argument that income aspiration leads to the “relational treadmill” of not reaching increased life satisfaction, and points to papers with more convincing evidence to support that theory.

Bearing in mind these critiques, it seems that there is merit to Bruni and Stanca’s theoretical framework, but some problems with their empirical analysis and interpretation. I think we should be hesitant to take any of the magnitudes or the significance of their effects to heart, but their basic theory that television leads to income aspiration, which in turn causes people to over consume material goods and under consume relational goods has enough grounding that we should continue to consider its validity.

What it all means: In contrast with the literature we’ve reviewed relating watching television to health outcomes, where there seems to be some agreement in the direction and significance of the effects related to watching television, relating television to happiness seems to be a bit murkier. The evidence from these three papers suggests that there may be a relationship between income aspiration, happiness, and television, but that there is disagreement on the best way to assess the magnitude or the causes of that relationship according to the World Values Survey. In particular, the country-specific impacts appear to be significant drivers of whether or not television affects individual wellbeing. The conflicting results from these authors affirms the complexity of the intuition underlying the study of subjective wellbeing.