Your inner child

Older people like to watch children’s television, according to the TV licensing study that came out this week: “Older people found the most enjoyment in children’s television, with 80% of respondents aged 65 and above agreeing children’s shows make them happy.”

It’s surprising that older people watch children’s TV, but so is the idea of using happiness as an indicator of social benefit. Happiness does seem to carry different connotations to “enjoyment.” You might enjoy watching a crime drama, but does it make you happy?

Two lenses for the eyes, happy and sad masks pressed into metal surround, says 3D aboveIn the TV licensing study, Mark Williamson, Director of Action for Happiness, says, “certain programming, notably comedy and entertainment, can significantly boost our mood. And the impact of this may not be as trivial as it first appears, considering research which shows that regularly experiencing positive emotions leads to significant health and other benefits. Television can of course also broaden our perceptions, for example by breaking down cultural barriers or raising awareness about important issues. And it can even enhance our connections with other people.”

Williamson also says that TV poses challenges to our wellbeing. It keeps us on the sofa instead of being active, can cause behavioural problems amongst children, and all the bad news we watch can make us sad.

More than television

A group of us are about to embark on a funded project about mobility, health and wellbeing amongst older people. What Williamson says about television, we say about taking outdoor exercise. Our project builds on growing evidence that mood and emotion influence people’s willingness to be active. They broaden people’s perceptions. Mood and emotion are in turn influenced by the experience of different environments. We argue that exercise provides protection against mental decline in old age. We think it’s necessary to understand the positive qualities that encourage people to go out, remain mobile, and give them pleasure into very old age.

So that’s three strategies claiming to yield positive results: watch more of the right kind of television, get out and about, and become a child again. At least two out of those three make sense.


  • The project will build in part on a smaller project I reported two weeks ago. See The brain in the city. More information will follow.
  • Also see post: Old enough to know better.
  • For some reason I’m reminded of the old question: Do infants have as much fun at infantry as adults have at adultery?
  • The Telehappiness survey is online. I took the survey. I answered thinking that watching the news does make me feel happy, as I feel I’m learning something, which is a source of happiness, irrespective of the content, but perhaps I’m wrong. Also see The happy medium.
  • It’s hard not to equate television-induced happiness with those sci-fi stories where citizens are lulled into an acquiescent stupor by the constancy of inane media fare, pleasure machines or drugs, while their lives are controlled by dictators, machines or the system. I think Total Recall starts that way. The media is the opium of the people, to misquote Karl Marx.
  • The TV Licensing study didn’t look at radio, but with personal stereos you get the combined benefits of entertainment and exercise. On that note see the warning from the scary animation called The Passenger by Chris Jones. Head-mounted display screens might also work.
  • Are the over sixty fives who say that children’s television programmes make them happy watching Scooby-Doo or nature discovery programmes (eg Naomi’s Nightmares of Nature)? The Romantic philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote about curiosity in relation to the education of the teenage adolescent. At the age of about twelve, any child has a surplus of strength and capacity. The tutor’s task is to encourage the child to invest this surplus in the future by directing it to physical exploration of the world. If we include within this capacity the child’s optimism and propensity for positive emotion, then Rousseau was supporting an early version of what psychologists term the “broaden and build” theory relating curiosity and mood.
  • Also see post Audience disengagement, What are audiences for? and Making friends.


  • Doubtfire, Pipa, and Mark Williamson. 2013. Telescope: A Look at the Nations Changing Viewing Habits from TV Licensing. Bristol, UK: TV Licensing. PDF
  • Fortin, David T. 2011. Architecture and Science Fiction Film: Philip K Dick and the Spectacle of Home. London: Ashgate
  • Fredrickson, Barbara L. 2004. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, (359) 1449, 1367-1377.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2003. Emile, or, Treatise on education. Trans. W. H. Payne. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. First published in 1896.


  1. BBC iplayer has horizon program on neurological basis of creativity. One idea in it was that low cognitive load activities like sorting coloured Legos can improve creativity as opposed to a break where you do nothing. Maybe there is an emotional correlate? Kids programming is fun, simple and low emotional stress compared with reality shows and adult drama?

    1. Good points Mark. I’ll catch up with the Horizon programme and the research behind it. If kid’s shows are low in cognitive demand then perhaps also you can do other things while they are on in the background. Perhaps it’s all about ambient entertainment. In similar vein, video ads in public spaces may have a similar ambient function. Ads are generally upbeat in any case. Do they make us happy?

      1. I’ve seen the programme now. So perhaps messing about with page layout, cropping pictures, and tweaking tables, is a bit like sorting coloured Lego blocks. They are not just distractions from writing, but provide necessary spaces for low cognitive load exercise. I assume it’s a matter of balance though.

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