The study, TV Living, also explodes two myths of television viewing - that men do not watch soap operas and that they are in charge of what is watched. It found that people watch more television and more low-quality television when they are depressed or poor compared with when they are happy and successful.
Those who are feeling good tend to pre-select "quality" programmes that they really want to see rather than simply watching anything that is on.
TV Living, which was sponsored by the British Film Institute and three television companies, gave diaries to 500 people so they could track their lives and their viewing between 1991 and 1996. "We found quite radical changes in how people used television according to what was happening to their lives," said one of the study's authors, David Gauntlett.
"There was one middle-class teacher who during the period of the study got divorced, became unemployed and had a breakdown. She went from choosing specific programmes to watching things such as Blind Date and Beadle's About. But when people start new relationships or move to a new area they tend to watch less television and be more selective when they do," added Mr Gauntlett who is a lecturer in social communications at the University of Leeds.
"It is as if TV is a stress reliever, a comforter and a friend. When they regain their security or happiness, television becomes less important."
People control their viewing because they feel guilty that time spent watching television is wasted. Watching during the day brought out deep- seated feelings of guilt among all those who took part in the study. "People told us that television during the day isn't very good," said Mr Gauntlett. "They find it patronising and said it was aimed at housewives. Even housewives said that."
Because of the detailed nature of the diaries, the study found, for the first time, that men enjoy and watch soap operas just as much as women. "In the past, it's been thought there was some innate quality to soap opera, the family-based storylines perhaps, which made them attractive to women. But men get just as involved in their favourite soaps," said Mr Gauntlett.
The study also discovered that men do not exert power in the home by choosing programmes. Instead choices are mostly negotiated: "It's just that the man tends to keep a grip on the remote control," said Mr Gauntlett. "That may have some kind of phallic power, but which button is pushed is usually agreed."
Other findings of the study included the fact that few old people had a problem with nudity and sex on television per se. Instead they objected to it being shown because they tend to believe that sex is special and is demeaned by the medium.
How People Find Solace From The Box
"In 1994 I collapsed from exhaustion. I was also unemployed and I began to watch programmes I would never have watched before, like Blind Date."
46-year-old unemployed female teacher
EastEnders and Coronation Street
"I feel guilty at watching EastEnders or Coronation Street as I tend to ignore my son. He says I stop him playing when they come on and this makes me feel guilty."
34-year-old female clerical officer
"I have changed jobs from being a poorly paid hospital chef, to being a better paid caterer. In the old days I did shift work and watched things like Kilroy."
40-year-old self-employed male caterer
"Neighbours and Home and Away are as nice and easy to chew as my tea, which I eat while I watch them. It's my wind-down hour after work."
35-year-old male factory worker