Rich People Habits: Almost No Television Time

I find it wise to pay attention to the cultural habits that distinguish the difference between the most and least successful households in the United States. Obviously, the most interesting data points are those where the behaviors of the rich and poor are the polar opposite.

In particular, there is an ever-widening gulf between the amount of time that America’s rich and America’s poor spend watching television.

A few TV-related data points:

  1. 6% of households with income above $150,000 watch over an hour of television per today, compared to 78% of households that earn under $50,000 per year;
  2. 89% of households that earn under $50,000 watch at least one reality TV show on a regular basis compared to 12% of those from households with income above $150,000;
  3. The richest decile in the United States watches 8.2 hours of television per week. The poorest decile in the United States watches 31.9 hours of television per week (almost a full-time job!);
  4. 18% of those in the richest decile describe television as the primary leisure activity; in comparison, 78% of those in the poorest decile describe television-watching as their primary leisure activity;
  5. 12% of those in the richest decile turn on the television within thirty minutes of arriving home from work at the end of the day; 71% of those in the poorest decile do it.

It is quite noteworthy that Americans today describe their lifestyles as busier than ever, yet, the current generation of Americans enjoy 41 additional hours of free time compared to what Americans enjoyed two years ago. It is arguably the greatest opportunity for self-improvement that has been bestowed upon any generation.

And what are some of us doing with it? Throwing the gift of life away and doing nothing but watching television. For those who watch 32 hours of television per week, they are taking almost all (78%!) of the leisure gains that have been achieved due to labor law and technological improvements over the past two generations and throwing it away to watch others live vicariously.

So many people think that success is limited to the simple decision of allocating money. No, the allocation of money is a component of wealth but wealth is mostly about how you choose to allocate your time.

Anecdotally, I have heard from many people who report strong increases in their life-satisfaction and sense of accomplishment after they have gotten rid of the cable subscription, cut back on Netflix, and even removed their social media accounts. That may sound extreme, but sometimes, complete abstinence is easier than moderation because bright-lines become habit without a perpetual negotiation of willpower.

The whole point of removing television from your daily habits is to avoid “sleepwalking through life.” If there is no tv or internet to spend your idle time, you suddenly have to start living deliberately. No one wakes up on Monday and says, “I plan on watching 31 hours of television this week.” It is just something that happens as a default habit day by day.

Based on pure time allocation, idle television-watching is one of the most destructive aspects of the typical American lifestyle because its opportunity cost is high and hidden (we don’t know the explicit costs of what we could be doing if we spent the time accomplishing something instead of passing the time by) and a single instance of television-watching does not carry harmful consequences as the harm is gradual. No one says “I’m going to watch 1,560 hours of television this year” but the hours toll by and the next thing you know a year of your life passed by without much to show for it.

It is also don’t help that those who abandon television and choose to be productive refrain from discussing this decision in public. It is a phenomenon that Dr. Charles Murray tongue-in-cheek called “ecumenical nonjudgmentalism” in that America’s elite practice successful habits but don’t lecture others about it because they don’t want to appear judgmental or don’t want to cede their family’s competitive advantage.

The downside is that those individuals who grow up in an environment without the right habits will have no idea that each TV session carries an extremely high opportunity cost. The time that could be spent improving your labor market skills, improving your physical health, or fortifying friendships is instead passing by in a blippity block of time. If you want to have a good day, turning off the television is a great place to start.

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