I’ve been reading Happiness – Lessons from a new science which began like an economist’s version of Authentic Happiness. So far so familiar. But then Layard moved onto the role of TV in our current state of happiness. He takes at face value the research suggesting TV makes us more violent and more miserable and didn’t really acknowledge that there was any academic debate about this at all (see Moving Experiences and Everything Bad is Good For You for alternative academic and populist perspectives).
I might have been more interested in the arguments than TV makes us unhappy if Layard hadn’t so unquestionably accepted the doctrine that TV makes us violent. Watching rubbish TV certainly stops me doing stuff. Some of that stuff is the dull routine of washing up, tidying, and mucking out the animals but it also stops me writing, reading, and making. It wastes my time. Or rather it is how I waste my time.
But watching brilliant TV is no less virtuous than watching a good film, play or musical. The problem seems to be with watching TV as a routine activity rather than a carefully chosen programme and so the arguments seem warped.
In the hierarchy of sinful media it seems that video games are the worst, then television, and then cinema. Novels and theatre aren’t on the scale. No-one tutted when I was taken to the National by my English teacher to see the gore-fest that is Macbeth. And that was real 3-d people conducting very believable acts of violence a few feet away.
At a historical re-creation in my teens, I remember chatting to a mother of two young children. She had got rid of the TV when her children were born and had been pleased that the toddlers were growing up peaceful and happy. Recently she said, her husband had taken the children to a medieval re-enactment that had featured jousting. She sighed as her youngest son galloped past us, twig masquerading as joust, endeavouring to impale any convenient passer-by. The next time I saw them, the TV had been re-instated.
I’m going to persevere with Happiness, hopefully the economic sections will include more sophisticated positions than the Daily Mail-esque ‘TV as moral crisis’.