I never used to understand exactly what made me listen to the same music, re-read the same books, and watch the same movies and shows over and over again whenever I was sad or overwhelmed. The waterworks start and an endless rotation of Bon Iver, Little Women, Twilight, Anna Karenina, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Fleabag, The Smiths, Simon & Garfunkel, Skins, and Community begins.
To me, just like so many others, “comfort-watching” old shows and films has always been a natural, easy no-brainer. It’s a distraction. And an effective one. However, ever since the pandemic – which saw the entire population forced to acknowledge their own mortality with only a black mirror for company – people have begun to examine what exactly makes comfort-watching so effective.
Some people might not need an explanation for why their favourite show makes them feel better. Examining the impulse to re-watch things out of a desire to seek comfort can bring up quite a lot of questions, including “Is this an effective and healthy coping strategy?” and “Why does this calming effect happen in the first place? Can I recreate it in other ways?”
Science and psychology might just have clearer answers than you expect. Lucy Spicer, a London-based psychological coach, told Vogue last year: “Uncertainty is anxiety’s fuel. A lot of anxious thoughts are future-focused and the pandemic brought a significant lack of control over what the future would look like. Given this backdrop, it is unsurprising that we looked for security, familiarity and routine in our everyday lives to gain a sense of control. Sameness and repetition can help reduce anxiety as we can have an existing knowledge of how things are likely to be and, in turn, dial back uncertainty and worry. We can watch what we know over and over again without any surprises, thereby giving us the control and predictability we need in an unpredictable global situation.”
Simply put, knowing what’s going to happen next can help you feel ahead of the game, which can create a sense of calm in an otherwise chaotic world. Additionally, the kind of content can matter — to some people, anyway. Helen Sneha Jambunathan, a behavioural analyst for the market research company Canvas8 says, “The lure of vegging out is undeniable. Easy-to-consume media let people switch off in a way that’s simply not possible when fully focused or even just daydreaming. It provides the same effect as carrying out manual work or exercising – your consciousness has something to focus on, while the rest of you truly gets to rest.”
This might be why there tends to be an archetype for “comfort content”, and streaming platforms have already begun to respond to it. Some of the most common examples people come up with are Friends, Gilmore Girls, The Office, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and other shows which have produced a high volume of episodes and series. One woman was quoted for The Guardian as saying, “There’s nothing that’s going to give you deep thought there. Something like Line of Duty or Killing Eve is not like that.”
While this can often be true, the comfortability of a show really does go on a case-by-case basis regarding the kind of content that’s bound to engage an individual. Put on something too mindless, and you might zone out, defeating the purpose of the escapism that the show or film is offering you.
Personally, I am someone with very odd “comfort content” and I’m completely aware of this (Leo Tolstoy, Quentin Tarantino, and Frances Ha are all essential). Despite many networks and producers aiming to have shows that can be watched time and again, it’s impossible to replicate the power of our personal favourite comfort watching material — although some people and platforms have tried to do this. Realistically, it’s about noticing the kinds of content that people know well and are willing to return to over and over again. Friends may well be the comfort watch go-to for one individual but will hold little weight for someone like me who has never seen it.
Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, talks about this feeling of safety, “We can think about it as a big plate of our favourite homemade dish or feeling safe at our childhood home. Some of these shows are like healthy connections or regressions to better or happier times where stressful situations or anxiety were not present in our lives.”
What does this mean for the benefits of “comfort-watching”? Is it healthy, or regressive? Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery might have an answer: balance. She says, “Recharging our brains can lead to improved mood and ability to tolerate frustration. The goal of comfort viewing is moderation, as the desired outcome is improving our overall quality of life as opposed to decreasing it. Extensive comfort viewing that involves hours of sitting or lying down can contribute to potential physical or mental health problems from inactivity, and if we are also eating unhealthy foods for comfort, the effect on our health can be compounded.”
Just like anything, it’s important to practice moderation. Plus, there are other ways to take these principles and apply them to other avenues of life to experience the same benefits.
Listening to comforting music, making playlists to play while you perform other tasks, writing your own stories, making recipes inspired by your favourite content, re-reading old books, or even finding new shows and films that remind you of your comfort content can be great for actively moderating your consumption while also relying on some of those healthy benefits.
If nothing else, you can rest assured that there’s a reason why you want to flip on The Office or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World after a rough day at work or a draining interaction with your family. Just make sure you don’t park yourself in front of the tube for too long, and everything should be just fine.