Photo by Nicolas J Leclercq / Unsplash

The entertainment you consume might actually make you an all-around better person.

Ok, it depends on your definition of “better,” but it’s actually true. Think of it like this:

You probably know that highly processed, sugary foods tend to make you feel lethargic, unfocused, and maybe even guilty. Regularly consuming those foods over an extended period of time can have a detrimental effect on your health, leading to various diseases, digestive issues, and obesity.

So if you care about your health and want to live a decently long life, or even if you just care about your physical appearance, or you want to avoid expensive medical bills, you probably try, for the most part, to fill your body with stuff that isn’t crap.**

Just as your body takes in food, digests it, and uses it, so too does your brain with the entertainment you consume. The same mode of thinking—that you shouldn’t ingest complete crap all the time—should apply both to the stuff you consume orally and the stuff you consume with your eyes and ears.

Modern technology provides more forms of entertainment than humans have seen before. 80% of the US population is watching television on any given day, for an average of nearly 3 hours a day. Time spent on computers and phones is even longer, contributing to the average 11 hours we spend interacting with media each day, according to a study from Nielsen. With reported screentime skyrocketing during the pandemic, it’s worthwhile to pause and consider how your personal consumption actually makes you feel.

Try to recall what you’ve watched, listened to, or read in the past few weeks. How did you feel afterward? And what did you do afterward?

“Bad” entertainment can make you feel just as lethargic, unfocused, and guilty as two sleeves of Oreos and a party-size bag of Flamin’ Hot Doritos. Consuming that kind of entertainment all the time is worse.

Becoming Smarter & Kinder Through Media

An article in The New York Times highlighted the effects of the Italian television network Mediaset, “which specialized in light entertainment such as game shows featuring scantily clad women.” The study found that “children raised in areas with greater access to Mediaset (a standard deviation in signal strength) had lower cognitive scores as adults by the equivalent of 3 to 4 IQ points.”

Alternatively, the article explains, a group of low-income kids who watched Sesame Street, a program designed mainly to educate children in reading, math, and emotional skills, gained 5.4 IQ points and “showed stronger evidence of learning along several other dimensions” than children who didn’t watch.

Sure, children are highly impressionable. But similar effects are shown in adults too.

One study published in the Journal of Media Psychology aimed to prove the effects of underdog narratives in media. Subjects who watched a 5-minute video clip about an underdog character overcoming obstacles for 5 consecutive days reported feeling more hopeful and motivated to achieve their own goals than subjects who watched other types of videos. The feeling actually lasted for 3 days following the media exposure.

Another study published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media analyzed the effects of watching more meaningful entertainment media. After viewing a clip from the television show Rescue Me, participants were asked to take part in an optional task to either help a researcher from their own university who was close in age and of the same race, or help a researcher from a rival university of different age and race.

It turns out that those who watched the emotional, uplifting clip from Rescue Me were more likely to help the researcher who was more “different” than them.

At a time when entertainment media is more divisive than ever, countless articles and studies highlight how consuming content from specific outlets and platforms unconsciously drives political beliefs, votes, and biases. The findings above and our own personal accounts of how entertainment primes us prove that there are some awesome positive effects to consider too.

Changing Your Consumption Habits

Knowing that entertainment is as significant a part of our lives as sleeping, working, and eating, it’s incredibly powerful to realize that our entertainment can make us smarter, more motivated, and more open-minded if we choose consciously and correctly.

You don’t always have to choose shows or movies that are purposely educational or serious, either. You can choose a comedy that’s super funny because it’s actually incredibly clever and well-written and relatable, versus a comedy that’s just dumb.

Try reflecting on whether your entertainment makes you feel inspired or depressed. Does it seem well-executed or poorly done? Does it make you think or offer a new perspective?

For instance, I find myself happier and amused after watching Arrested Development (seasons 1-3 only, of course). And I found myself generally more competent after watching Suits.

But, to each their own. One person’s idea of a well-executed television show is completely different from another’s. So perhaps the best way to judge is based on how it makes you think, feel, and act in the moments and days after watching it.

They (still not sure who "they" is) say you're the combination of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Considering how often humans interact with media, you could probably consider yourself a combination of the television series, podcasts, books, and media outlets you interact with most. It just makes sense to absorb the things that make your life a little better instead of a little worse.

It’s okay to like the basic stuff, too. Just keep in mind that like the Oreos and Flamin’ Hot Doritos, consuming only or mostly mindless, depressing or uninspiring entertainment can have major negative consequences on how you work, think, and feel. Might as well choose what’s going to make you the best version of yourself.

Maybe in the future, to make choosing easier, we’ll create AI that analyzes the content of movies, television shows, and books and then tells you the effect they might have on you. Or, it could take existing data and suggest what to watch to prime you the way you want to be primed. Could make for a fun skunkworks project here at AE Studio. Or if you’re applying for a job and really want to impress us, please make it yourself!

**It is significantly easier for higher-income people to eat healthier foods. The better-for-you options are usually far more expensive, and wealthier people tend to be more educated about the negative effects of certain kinds of food. That is a major issue too, but I’m using healthy vs unhealthy food purely to create an analogy.