Televisions, Home Theater, and Happiness

by Mike Shea on 26 December 2009

I recently spent a great deal of time and energy researching the purchase of a new TV and I found the whole experience to be painful and irritating. My Mitsubishi still runs nicely and looks good but the lack of 1080p and the lack of HDMI put a new TV on my wish list. So I combed the web, read a lot of reviews, and bored the piss out of my friends discussing the most important merits of 120hz over 240hz - which largely amounts to bullshit if my research is correct.

There are so many models of TVs these days with so many new features that even a guy like me, who wrote his own home theater blog for about four years, couldn't make sense of it. I ended up spending a lot less than I had allowanced and got a TV with the core features I wanted: 1080p, 52", and 120hz so I can watch DVDs and Blu-ray without any 3:2 pulldown. I ended up with a Sony 52V5100 and I'll let you know if I like it next week when it shows up.

The entire process of shopping for a TV reminded me of the TED talk by Dan Gilbert called "Why Are We Happy?" This is an amazing TED presentation that is definitely worth 20 mintues of your time to watch it. It can change how you perceive everything in your life. In short, manufactured happiness - the happiness you might trick yourself into feeling - is just as powerful as "real" happiness you might feel from actual improvements in your life.

This thought actually changed how I ended up buying my TV. Instead of buying the top-of-the-line LED-lit 240hz 55" TV for $3200, I spent less than half of that on a 52" model from earlier this year. My reasoning? I'll be less critical of one I bought on the cheap and it likely will make little difference in how I enjoy my entertainment. If I ended up buying the top of the line TV, I'd be far more critical of any weird performance problem it had even if that problem would have very little bearing in my daily use.

I found the same to be true with my new Onkyo THX receiver. I got this receiver to replace my old but high-end Yamaha receiver. I didn't expect it to sound much different but when I selected THX mode for music and tuned it with the auto-calibration, it sounded MUCH better to me. Now maybe it's just knowing that well-calibrated and the little red THX logo that makes me think I like it better, but that's as good as actually sounding better to my ear so who cares if it's real or not?

Now I did have a problem where one of the speakers wasn't hooked up right and I was astute enough to figure that out just by hearing it, but I'm guessing that most of the little effects of a receiver like this get lost when you're deeply into the latest Terminator flick.

Using Dan Gilbert's findings as a guide can really change how we think about things. It can guide our decisions in a lot of new directions we might not take simply by knowing what sorts of things make us happy and what sorts of things do not. Having a lot of choices, for example, usually means you're not as happy with whichever one you pick. This is a HUGE problem when there are about 800 different possible TVs to buy. That's simply too many options to be happy with any of them; we'll always end up second-guessing whatever choice we make.

So instead of buying something based simply on a pile of arbitrary statistics, consider buying it based on what you know about yourself and your own view of happiness. Even better, ask yourself if you'll really be any happier with whatever it is you're purchasing or if it's all a trick of your mind.