By Liz Greene
Living with anxiety can be interesting, to say the least. The total lack of control you have over your emotions often leads to a desperate attempt to regulate every other aspect of your life. For instance, I have a rigid schedule on the weekdays that I rarely deviate from (I leave spontaneity for the weekends). This steadfast routine keeps me calm, as I know exactly what to expect at any given point in the day. Part of that routine is watching my favorite shows before bed — always the same ones, even if I’ve seen them 1,000 times before. I’ll watch every available episode of Archer, Bob’s Burgers, American Dad, and The Venture Bros. and then start over from the beginning, replaying each series on a continuous loop.
I used to think this particular habit of mine was beyond strange, but then something interesting happened. When Netflix removed both American Dad and Bob’s Burgers from their line-up last May, Twitter exploded. One common thing I saw repeated was that re-watching these shows helped people with their anxiety. I suddenly understood that I wasn’t alone. Well, of course I wasn’t alone in my anxiety — 42 million adults in the US alone suffer from anxiety — but now I knew that my television habits weren’t an anomaly.
But what exactly is behind this preoccupation with reruns — why do so many people love to watch the shows they’ve already seen? The answer may surprise you.
Back in 2012, Jaye Derrick, research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions, performed two separate studies on the social consequences of television. The first involved two groups of people who reported feeling stressed. One group was told to write an essay about their favorite television show, while the other had to write about the objects in the room. The group who did a write up on their favorite TV show emerged with higher energy levels and performed better on difficult puzzles given after the essay.
The second study asked subjects to keep a daily diary where they detailed their effortful tasks, media consumption, and energy levels. Dr. Derrick’s team found that the subjects who completed effortful tasks were more likely to seek out a rerun of their favorite television show, movie, or to re-read a favorite book. Those who did so reported restored energy levels.
But Dr. Derrick found that reruns offer up another interesting benefit, one she refers to as “social surrogacy.” She says, “I have found, for example, that favorite television shows can actually increase people’s pro-social behavior. Specifically, after thinking about a favorite television show, people are more willing to forgive others, are more willing to help a stranger and are more willing to sacrifice for their romantic partner.”
Fictional worlds allow us to connect with another person and gain some of the benefits of socialization without the drawbacks of a real-life relationship. There are fewer complications in fictional relationships — you don’t have to meet someone else’s needs, and there are no fights or conflicts of interest. Essentially, it’s all gain and no pain.
Comfort Food for the Soul
Beyond Dr. Derrick’s findings, there are other reasons why people repeatedly seek out the comfort of their favorite shows. Familiar shows and movies demand less mental energy to process, and when something is easy to digest, we’re more likely to regard it as being “good.” Scientists call this the “mere exposure effect,” which means that we like something more simply because we’ve been exposed to it before.
There’s also the nostalgic angle. Humans love to repeat the experiences that help us remember the past, mostly because remembering the past feels good. When it comes to television, movies, books, and music, scientists use the term “regressive re-consumption”, wherein we use entertainment as a way to revisit lost memories. This explains why I’m always happiest when listening to ‘90s music.
But what may be the reason that I relate to the most is that reruns can’t surprise us. When watching our favorite shows, we know both how they’ll end and how we’ll feel when they end. It essentially works as a form of emotional regulation. We know what to expect and get exactly the emotional outcome we’re looking for. For someone with anxiety, this kind of emotional certainty is invaluable.
So there you have it, not only does watching reruns of your favorite show restore your energy and relieve stress, it also makes you feel good by giving you a nostalgia boost and a guaranteed emotional payoff. At a time when suffering and uncertainty are part of being an American citizen, the comfort and familiarity of a beloved TV show is a joy we should all be allowed to indulge in sans guilt.
Liz Greene is a feminist, anxiety-ridden realist, and full blown pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, ID. When not stalking the aisles of her local Ulta, she can be found shoveling down sushi while discussing the merits of the latest Game of Thrones fan theories. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene, or check out her latest post on Three Broke Bunnies.
Featured image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/room-office-modern-lectronic-2559790/