The High Personal Cost of Low-Energy Pastimes

There’s a high personal cost to low-energy pastimes such as television watching. In his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Dr. Martin Seligman notes that surveys repeatedly show that viewers’ average mood while watching TV sitcoms is one of mild depression. Research has shown that boredom is another mood that typically accompanies low-engagement pastimes such as watching TV.

Most of us shuttle between the two extremes of stressful everyday obligations like work, and passive, couch potato leisure activities. It turns out that, besides the immediate lowering of one’s mood, there are other long-term costs associated with a lifetime of low-energy pleasures. Modern psychological research suggests that this behavior pattern is an impediment to long-term personal fulfillment.

It’s impossible to have an optimal lifestyle if you fill your free time with activities that elicit feelings of boredom and mild depression.

A SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND TELEVISION

Many African-Americans in my age group (40s) were among the first generation of Black children who were raised by being propped in front of the TV for hours at a time. Many of us have raised our own children in the same fashion. And so the cycle repeats, and becomes accepted as normal.

As a result, there are now several generations of Black people who live with the television on 24 hours a day, every single day. The TV is never turned off while people are inside the home. People will often have the TV and loud music playing simultaneously. In many modern Black households, conversations are shouted over the din of the TV and music. Meals are eaten around the TV.

We often say that Black people need to turn off the TV and read. This is true. What we don’t realize is that many of us simply can’t do this. Many of us are addicted to noise. I’ve watched small Black children immediately turn on the TV the moment they enter a room, even though they have no intention of watching it. I’ve watched Black adults do this as well. They’ve been conditioned to be ill at ease with silence. Most African-Americans are deeply afraid of silence.

If this describes you, you’re going to have to wean yourself off the omnipresence of television if you want to have an optimal lifestyle.

At the previous blog, I talked about this behavior from the perspective of noise pollution. With a focus on how this constant noise prevents renewing one’s mind. For this conversation, consider the possibility that filling so much of their free time with television might have a connection with the pervasive, low-grade negative mental states that so many Black women experience.

There is a science to optimal living, and a relatively new field called positive psychology dedicated to studying it. Positive psychology is the scientific study of what enables individuals and communities to thrive.

Researchers in this field have written about the ingredients of an optimal lifestyle. Dr. Seligman’s book, Authentic Happiness, is one example. Another example is University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book discusses the results of studies using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM). He found that people were happiest when most absorbed in their actions, a state he calls “flow.” Flow-producing activities have several components:

  • The activity is challenging and requires skill
  • The activity lends itself to deep concentration and focus
  • Participants feel a sense of personal control over the activity
  • Participants become absorbed in the activity, lose their feelings of self-consciousness, and merge with the activity (such as “becoming” the music that one is playing, or “being” the martial arts form that one is practicing)
  • The activity has clear goals
  • The activity provides direct and immediate feedback about one’s performance (successes and failures in the activity are obvious, so performance can be adjusted as necessary)
  • There is a balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is not too easy or too hard for the participant)
  • Participants’ subjective experience of time is altered; time stops for participants.

There are reasons we choose low energy pastimes instead of flow-producing pastimes. Flow-producing activities require effort and discipline (to develop any skill in the activity). They also involve the possibility of failure while one is developing one’s skills. It’s so much easier to be a couch potato. Low-energy pastimes are the easiest things to do, but they’re not the best things to do if you want a fulfilling, optimal life.

Resist the urge to flop down on the couch. Choose better ways to spend your leisure time.

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15 Responses to “The High Personal Cost of Low-Energy Pastimes”

  1. Jules says:

    I am not addicted to the television, hardly watch it and I only have one. Truthfully, I believe one TV is enough and I would never dare put one in my bedroom. That being said, I will admit that I am addicted to the computer. I watch movies, do research and just keep up on what is going on. I wonder if the same problems that apply to TV addicts also apply to computer addicts? I am conscious of the inordinate amount of time I spend online and I am trying to wean myself from it, but I have not been successful so far. Plus, it’s wintertime now I can’t even distract myself with outdoor pursuits. Please forward any tips that may be helpful, and I am not taking up knitting or basket weaving.

    A very informative and insightful article. Thanks.

  2. Karen says:

    A very timely post. I can speak from personal experience. I made a conscious decision in June of last year to shut off the TV. I was never a TV junkie but still felt that it was taking away from quality time.

    I, however have always had (and still have) many hobbies to keep me occupied (piano, singing, knitting, painting, reading, etc). However, by not having the TV any more (after work or weekends), an additional clarity has been gained.

    It is a strange feeling at first, but I highly recommend it.

  3. S says:

    You’re absolutely correct. I can attest to this I’m ashamed to say. My job requires me to stay awake all night and I’ve learned to fill the hours by either reading blogs, watching tv, or reading unfulfilling books (romance novels). This article is a wake up call. Thanks.
    I purchased your book yesterday.

  4. mochachoc says:

    Dearest Khadija,

    You said:

    “consider the possibility that filling so much of their free time with television might have a connection with the pervasive, low-grade negative mental states that so many Black women experience.”

    This is so apt. I absolutely love watching tennis. I was just watching Serena Williams play in the Australian Open against Justine Henin. I had to switch the TV off. It felt soul destroying because once again I had to observe a Black woman receiving hate. Now I know Serena did not help herself at the US Open but the truth is, neither she or her sister has received the love other players get.

    How, I asked myself do we remain resilient and thrive when we are subjected to so much hate? I know for sure that TV, in the main is soul destroying for Black women. The internet is another arena in which soul daggers are thrown at us. I love the internet but we must vet what we allow in.

    Due to our habits of watching TV and surfing the net our minds have simply become lazy. Advertisements, the news and even solid documentaries are presented to us in bite sizes. Consequently our attention span is shortened; we become unable to attend to more complex and demanding activities. In the long term this cannot be good for our brain matter. We need to continually challenge ourselves in order to maintain our mental abilities and even counter mental deficiencies that occur in old age.

    I suppose flow activities can be fun too. I think you can experience flow when going for a long walk.

  5. Jules,

    Thank you for your kind words about the essay; I truly appreciate it.

    I haven’t looked to see if there’s research about the moods elicited by computer surfing, so I don’t know if any problems associated with it are parallel with those associated with tv watching.

    There are 2 prongs about the tv/online situation that I find troubling:

    1-Since college, I’ve noticed that very few AAs seem to have any real hobbies or interests at all, much less ones that create flow (challenging activities that requires skill, and lend themselves to deep concentration and focus). So, folks are not doing things that lead to any sense of accomplishment.

    2-Since college, I’ve noticed that most AAs spend most of their free time in these low-energy/low-engagement pastimes. So, folks are not keeping their minds active on any level. This has implications later in life in terms of making one more susceptible to conditions like Alzheimer’s.
    __________________________________

    Karen,

    I’ve also mostly walked away from tv. This process has been helped by the fact that the few shows I took time to watch (mostly Sy-Fy Channel shows like Battlestar Galactica) went off. LOL!

    As I said in my reply to Jules, it’s not so much the random “junk-food tv” that concerns me. Having a SMALL bit of junk-food in one’s diet isn’t that big a deal. My issue is that most AAs have entire diets (both mental and physical) that consist ENTIRELY of empty calories, junk food!

    So, they’re suffering the direct consequences of feeding themselves a steady stream of garbage, AND missing out on the benefits of partaking of something better. This is a double-whammy.
    ________________________________________

    S,

    I feel that a little bit of “junk” won’t kill anybody. As I said above, my point of concern is so many of us having ENTIRE mental diets of junk.
    _________________________________________

    Mochachoc,

    My angle is slightly different here. There are the overt blows that one’s mood suffers from intake of obviously harmful things like the degradation showcased on Black Exploitation Television. What I’m talking about here is a bit more subtle.

    I’m talking about the double whammy of so many BW suffering the direct consequences of feeding themselves a steady stream of mental junk food, AND missing out on the long-term benefits of partaking of something better.

    As you’ve mentioned, I’ve also noticed how the soundbites presented in the media serve to reinforce folks having ever-shorter attentions spans.

    In terms of walking being a “flow” activity, I disagree. Spacing out [mental autopilot] during an activity isn’t quite the same thing as being so engrossed in the activity that one becomes absorbed in it. Flow activities are challenging and require concentration and focus on what one is doing.

    I doubt that activities that one can perform while on mental autopilot (such as walking) are flow activities.

    The distinction I’m making isn’t so much whether the activity requires physical movement or not—the distinction is whether the activity requires a high level of mental engagement. For example, there’s a very different level of mental engagement involved in the following 2 computer-based activities:

    1-surfing a gossip blog; or
    2-being a graphic artist who’s designing and creating an animation (oh, like the book trailer here) or a web design.

    On the surface, these 2 activities might look the same to an observer. [Somebody sitting in a chair, clicking a mouse, and staring at a computer screen.] However, I would expect that the level of active mental engagement (focus and concentrated attention) in these 2 computer-based activities are very different.

    Now, in terms of flow activities being “fun,” the interesting thing about the research is that participants generally don’t perceive flow activities as being “fun” while they’re engaging in them. But these activities are deeply satisfying over the long-term. It’s a different type of gratification.

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  6. I read the book Flow years ago, and what I remember most about it was that the author spoke of activities that demand physical and/or mental engagement…But what is interesting now is that there are connections to be found in physical exercise and improved mental acuity. Couch potatoes who go out to work and then return home to sit in front of the tv are not developing those connections.

  7. JaliliMaster says:

    To the first poster, re: winter activities. There are numerous hobbies that one can take up such as skiing, skating, etc. If you find these boring, there are ways in which they have been modified. e.g snow boarding etc.

    To black people in general, here is a suggeston….swimming. Most black people cannot swim. It’s worth taking it up as (1) You’ll learn a new skill, (2) Might discover a new passion (3) It is a good fun way to excercise your whole body at once (4) As a result of number 3, it will help you lose weight (5) As a result of learning to swim, it makes it easier (and safer) for you to take up other water-based activities, such as diving, surfing, wakeboarding etc. You can join local clubs or university clubs (if you are still in school).

    Re: the addicted to t.v. thing. I agree. It just occured to me that I almost always instictively switch the telly on when I am cooking (I have a living room in my flat at uni). It’s usually on some news channel, as I have this ‘need’ to know what is going on, so I’m just hearing continuous cycles and repeats of the same thing over and over again. It probably stems from the fact that my parents watched alot of news when I was growing up. I’m going to have to work on that.

    Reading is also a good option. Stay away from toxic nonsense and go for the sort of literature that can make you think.

  8. PioneerValleyWoman,

    You said, “But what is interesting now is that there are connections to be found in physical exercise and improved mental acuity. Couch potatoes who go out to work and then return home to sit in front of the tv are not developing those connections.”

    Exactly!

    And since there might be some confusion about what “engagement” and “being absorbed in the activity” means versus “spacing out/autopilot,” let me give the following example of active engagement/absorption: rock climbing. Folks are definitely NOT spaced out on autopilot while engaging in this particular physical activity.

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  9. mochachoc says:

    ooh I see the distinction. Perhaps I shall pick up my guitar again or learn to paint and draw. Thank you.

  10. Southland Diva says:

    Buddists (some) do walking as a mindfulness meditation, so they don’t ‘space’ out as much as bring themselves fully into the present moment which requires deep focus & concentration. The same state can be achieved through the practice of yoga, though that may not be what you mean as ‘flow’.

    Peace

  11. SouthlandDiva,

    That’s interesting; I’ll have to reconsider my concept of meditation. Because I have a lot of distracting mental chatter whenever I meditate, I never thought about the “flow” possibilities involved in meditation (for those folks who can sustain their focus and concentration).

    Since yoga is extremely challenging for me (instructors make it look easy, but that stuff can kick one’s behind–LOL!), I can easily see the “flow” possibilities in that. *Smile*

    Thanks for bringing that up!

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  12. tertiaryanna says:

    Khadija,

    consider the possibility that filling so much of their free time with television might have a connection with the pervasive, low-grade negative mental states that so many Black women experience.”

    I sometimes wonder if spending a lot of time and energy on television or the internet is a substitute for forming face-to-face relationships? The tv acts like a substitute “friend”: always entertaining, but not demanding. It’s like borrowing intimacy and fellowship, instead of actually fostering it.**

    I really enjoy TV and the internet, but I found that when I was feeling bored or lonely, I’d go there instead of just spending time with people. In retrospect, I’d need more time in front of the computer/TV to get the same “high” as I did with face-to-face interaction. It was isolating, but it didn’t feel like that, because the visual stimulation compensated for the lack of emotional stimulation.

    Ultimately, it was a dual time waster, because I still hadn’t done the work of creating the framework to actually socialize with others.

    Another thing I wonder is when people are used to high-stim, low-participation tasks, do they quickly lose patience with skill-based hobbies? There’s a lot of work involved with say, learning a language or an instrument. And most of the early effort doesn’t generate a lot of instant external praise. So there’s got to be some self-motivation to stay enthusiastic.

    But if a person’s been conditioned to feel the excitement without the work (like after watching TV) then I wonder if it artificially raises the “baseline” feeling of pleasure. So will the person be satisfied with normal levels, or even if the task is challenging? Or will the person get bored/frustrated sooner, and quit, which just reinforces the desire for passive entertainment?

    Also, what does it do for BW when these lost hobbies mean we can’t reinforce the skills needed to create art, music, dance, etc? I wonder about that a lot, because it’s just so easy for us to have our culture defined for us and sold to us, rather than us making it ourselves.

    ** ok, I found the phrase I was looking for: “Parasocial Relationships”. Are we having these instead of meaningful relationships with our loved ones, or cultivating our better selves?

  13. TA,

    You said, “I sometimes wonder if spending a lot of time and energy on television or the internet is a substitute for forming face-to-face relationships?”

    Yes, it is. This came up during the True Fellowship series of posts at the previous blog.

    All of these trends are quite isolating, and destructive of any sort of social fabric. The overall American cultural transition from neighborliness to isolation was discussed in the first chapter of an excellent book that I highly recommend: Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman.

    Peace, blessings and solidarity.

  14. Yuri Batala says:

    Strange this post is totaly unrelated to what I was searching google for, but it was listed on the first page. I guess your doing something right if Google likes you enough to put you on the first page of a non related search. 🙂

  15. Natasia says:

    I agree completely! If I spent as much time developing a hobby as I do with surfing on the Internet, I’d be quite an accomplished woman!

    I realize that this comment is perhaps a year too late, but here is a suggestion: Coffee Break Spanish,
    While you’re cooking, knitting, or cleaning, why not learn a new language? Coffee Break Spanish episodes are free 15-minute podcasts, and if Spanish isn’t your preferred language, there’s French, Cantonese, and other languages as well. Using CBS helped me TREMENDOUSLY when I studied abroad in Spain!