Don’t get me wrong — I’m not given to waging holy jihad against escapist entertainment. I’ve watched “Road House” at least ten times and never fail to be cheered up. There’s nothing like a monster truck crashing through a wall of plate-glass windows and wrecking a car dealership to make your day, and I’m convinced anyone who tries to convince me otherwise is being a self-aggrandizing killjoy.
There are limits to escapism, however. A few years ago, I dropped by my neighbor’s place to order some pizza one night as he was watching “Friends.” As successful sitcoms go, I’d be hard-pressed to think of one I like less. My friend, knowing this, offered to turn it off, but I demurred.
“Finish it off,” I said. “You’ve already started. You might as well see how it ends.”
He waved me off. “I’ve seen it already. I don’t even like this one.”
I asked him why he was watching it, then. “It’s background noise,” he responded.
He wasn’t doing spreadsheets or answering work emails. He wasn’t texting friends or looking at fabric swatches for new curtains. He was sitting on the couch. “Friends,” in other words, provided background chatter as he sank into a state of non-being.
Again, not every moment of our life has to be overflowing with meaning. We aren’t meant to spend our days reading Balzac to our beloved children on a grassy plain in the Italian Dolomites. However, we also know we have a finite time on this Earth. Yes, there’s the promise of the world to come — but when that vaguely finite number of days suddenly becomes more concrete, what will we think of that 22 minutes we spent watching “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” with our eyes and mental faculties glazed over.
This wasn’t a worry radio icon Rush Limbaugh had, even as he knew he was being moved with startling rapidity toward the door marked “Exit.”
“It’s tough to realize that the days where I do not think I’m under a death sentence are over,” Limbaugh told his listeners in October. “Now, we all are, is the point. We all know that we’re going to die at some point, but when you have a terminal disease diagnosis that has a time frame to it, then that puts a different psychological and even physical awareness to it.”
That awareness, one presumes, touches on a number of things — including whether one was happy and whether they were truly present in this life.
It’s impossible to say what Rush really felt about these two things when he departed this vale of tears on Feb. 17. On Wednesday, however, guest host Todd Herman played a clip of Limbaugh reminding us of one of the ways he stayed grounded and happy: foregoing the television entirely.
“How many times have you heard me say, ‘If you want to really be happy and content, turn off the television?'” Limbaugh said in the clip, according to a transcript on his website.
“Try it, I’ve said. Turn it off for a week and see how your life changes. Cutting edge of societal evolution.”
He then quoted a study that suggested “[m]aybe we need to be smarter about how we spend our time. And, no, that doesn’t mean watching more TV. Feeling unpleasant.”
The study said happiness had three basic components. “First, there’s your basic disposition — whether you are, by nature, a happy person or not,” Limbaugh said.
“‘Second, there’s your life circumstances, your age, health, marital status, income. Third factor, which is how you spend your time, something you have a fair amount of control over.’ The other things you might not. ‘This is the subject of a major new study by academics Daniel Kahneman, Alan Krueger, David Schkade,’ a whole bunch of idiots.
“For the study, the five professors surveyed some 4,000 Americans, asking what they did the previous day and then quizzing them in detail about three randomly selected events from the day.”
“The bottom line is, the less TV people watch, the happier they were. Now, I told you to try this years ago,” Limbaugh said.
“Here’s the bottom line on the professors and their study of happiness, contentment, and so forth. The standout cluster was what the authors label ‘engaging leisure and spiritual activities,’ things like visiting friends, exercising, attending church, listening to music, fishing, reading a book, sitting in a cafe or going to a party.”
“When we spend time on our favorite of these activities, we’re typically happy, engrossed and not especially stressed,” the study’s authors said.
“Time goes by, we’re not bored. We have more leisure time than ever before in our society, and yet we’re not doing those things. We’re zoning out. We’re sittin’ in front of the television,” he continued.
In fact, the study’s authors had a phrase for it: “neutral downtime.” Background noise — only there was nothing going on in the foreground except us zoning out.
“Try it, folks. You really should. Just listen to this program and don’t watch any television, especially news. Don’t!” Limbaugh said.
“Don’t, and spend the time doing things with your family, your spouse (if you can handle that), or going out with friends or what have you, just for a week, maybe. If you can’t do that, try three days (TV is addicting to some people), and you just see if you’re not better off. See if you’re not more content, if you’re not less worried all the time.”
Todd Herman summed up just how right Rush was: “Took that advice. I haven’t had a TV in 20 years.”
I’m not kicking television quite yet. I’ll still watch Patrick Swayze, fresh from yet another beating in “Road House,” tell the pulchritudinous nurse stitching him up that “pain don’t hurt.” However, I’ll try to do it less — and remind myself I can’t get back all the hours I spent in “neutral downtime,” looking for some noise to drown out the burden of thinking, feeling and living. And I’ll remember Rush when I do it.
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