"It is in the improvident use of our leisure, I suspect, that the greatest wastes of American life occur." - Robert Park, 20th Century sociologist
As of today, I have been sans TV for a whole year. A whole trip around the sun without the boob tube and I'm doing alright. In fact, I really don't miss it at all. For a quick movie fix there's the laptop, and it's just so nice to be able to never have to listen to a single ad. I've even stopped listening to the radio to avoid incessant commercials.
This past year I've read more, gone to bed at a reasonable time, and done other things, like knitting and learning to play tennis, which I never seemed to have time for when there was always "something on."
Without TV, I have more free time.
I think Rhonda Byrne and her followers were wrong -- the "Secret" to happiness is not out there in the universe, to be acquired through the power of blah, blah, blah... It's how we use what's between our ears that makes us truly happy and satisfied with ourselves and our lives.
Enter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience. Here's his TED talk:
I wish I'd found this guy years ago. He's a psychologist at of the U of Chicago who wrote this book on the results of several studies about what makes people happy, or, what he refers to as being "in flow." He suggests that to really enjoy (not just find shallow pleasurable moments in) life, we need to cultivate our ability to get the most out of every experience. If we lose ourselves in an activity (and there are countless options) that both challenge us and make us focus our attention, then we will find ourselves really getting the most out of our minds, bodies and souls.
Of course, not every experience is created equal. The worst of all, of course, is to passively absorb TV.
"Compared to people living only a few generations ago, we have enormously greater opportunities to have a good time, yet there is no indication that we actually enjoy life more than our ancestors did. Opportunities alone, however, are not enough. We also need the skills to make use of them. And we need to know how to control consciousness -- a skill that most people have not learned to cultivate. Surrounded by an astounding panoply of recreational gadgets and leisure choices, most of us go on being bored and vaguely frustrated." (Flow, ch. 4, p. 83)
Csikszentmihalyi believes enjoyment comes through work, not aimless, lackadaisical loafing. To experience real enjoyment, to really ENJOY ourselves, we have to WORK at having a good time. Because to have a good time means to DO something, to engage in something (tennis, reading, chess, debating, playing an instrument, golfing, yoga, drawing, karate, carpentry, etc. etc.) that makes use of our minds and bodies and forces us to concentrate. In doing this, as long as there the right amount of stimulation without frustration or boredom, we will lose ourselves in the moment. And it is in these moments (which we can hopefully make last), that we enjoy life and experience, at least what most would call, happiness.
"Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing. Most jobs and many leisure activities -- especially those that involve the passive consumption of mass media -- are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks." (Flow, ch. 7, p. 163)
Happiness comes not from tuning out to simply absorb what we call entertainment, but from actively engaging with the world so that we feel we are truly part of it and can have a real effect on it.
Since TV in no way provides this kind of opportunity, it is quite literally a waste of life.
As Neil Postman says in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), "The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining..." (Amusing, ch. 6, p. 87)
I guess there's a reason they call it the idiot box.
So here's to Aldous Huxley and his warning about the future of bread and circuses... and to Neil Postman for his tribute to Huxley... and especially to Csikszentmihalyi, for not only tying these others' ideas in nicely with his own theory, but for giving us an alternative to TV. Here's to being in flow.