Writer and editor Jill Duffy first started rewatching TV shows after she moved from the U.S. to India with her partner in 2015. She was struggling to adjust to life in a new country, and Seinfeld and Modern Family reminded her of living in San Francisco and New York, where life was more familiar. She appreciated how the characters “[felt] like friends at a time when we were distanced from our friends,” she says. Rewatching favorite episodes of British comedy shows like The IT Crowd and Peep Show gave her a laugh before bed.
Half a decade later, faced with similar feelings of alienation and loneliness during the pandemic, she returned to the ritual of rewatching TV shows at the end of the day. She’s since expanded her library (Schitt’s Creek has become a new favorite) but the reason she seeks these shows out have mostly stayed the same: she likes knowing she can watch a show that will comfort her when the world outside feels scary and unpredictable.
When you consider the course of human history—or even television history—rewatching television shows on demand is a relatively new phenomenon. But our instinct to turn to the same stories again and again is part of the human experience, says Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo who researches how watching TV shows can enhance feelings of belonging. Humans have an innate need to belong to larger groups for our survival, and we are biologically programmed to find solace in stories, she says. This is a primitive drive that happens outside our conscious awareness. “There’s this strong, very old evolutionary system in us that pulls us towards wanting these comforting narratives,” she says.
Our ancestors didn’t have sharp claws or ferocious teeth to ward off potential threats; they needed to rely on one another for their survival. “Throughout human history and all known places around the world, human beings have lived in collectives,” Gabriel says. “We believe that people evolved to have a mechanism that draws them to other folks.” This drive made humans social creatures and made them feel rewarded and happy when they’re having social interactions, she says.
At the time this instinct was developing in people, television, books, and magazines didn’t exist. Gabriel hypothesizes that’s why fictional characters can feel so much like real friends. “There was really no reason for humans to evolve a mechanism to differentiate between the real people in our lives and the people who become real in our minds.” Therefore, Gabriel says, people don’t really differentiate between the two—which means we can fulfill our need to belong by feeling connected to other people through these narratives.
Rewatching TV shows in an effort to unwind can also provide comfort, Gabriel says. Research by Gabriel and others has found that when people rewatch their favorite TV shows, they report feeling transported into another world. This can make them feel less lonely when viewing these programs, Gabriel says. “It’s actually a very healthy part of maintaining a strong sense of self and sense of connection in the modern world,” she says of rewatching shows.
Here are some of the benefits you might reap from turning to a beloved TV show again and again.
You’ll feel more restored
Watching new TV shows requires you to pay close attention. There are new characters to acquaint yourself with, new fictional universes to warm up to. It can be a lot to handle when you’re exhausted.
When people are feeling depleted, rewatching TV shows can re-energize them and restore feelings of self-control, says Jaye Derrick, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston. In one small study, Derrick found that after college students did a draining writing assignment or used a lot of self-control over the course of a day, they were more likely to seek out familiar fictional worlds—as opposed to new ones—and felt better after doing so.
During a given day, we only have a certain amount of willpower, Derrick says. Paying attention to boring tasks at work, regulating what you say to your co-workers, running errands; all of those things use up this limited amount of self-control. “And then when you get home, your partner asks, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ You’re like, ‘I don’t care. Let’s just eat.’ That’s an example of just not wanting to make decisions anymore, because you don’t have the resources left to engage in effortful decision-making at that point,” she says.
Rewatching television shows can restore some of that energy, Derrick says, because it’s a form of taking a break from making decisions and therefore can replenish your self-control capacity. Perhaps you like the characters or you like the emotional experience you had when watching the show the first time. By rewatching the show, “you can just sit back and enjoy the ride,” she says.
You won’t be disappointed
Studies have found that when people are faced with a choice to try something new or continue a habit they have, they tend to choose to keep things the same. This is called status quo bias, and we do it because maintaining habits we already have lowers the risk of distress or disappointment.
In a 1988 study that first demonstrated status quo bias, researchers found that this preference for the familiar is the reason people tend to shop at the same grocery store and order the same items from a menu; chances are, these things will meet our expectations. Trying a new store or ordering a new item increases the chance of dissatisfaction.
When you’re under stress or need a release, you may not have the mental bandwidth to make a decision about whether a new show is worth checking out. The humor may not connect, the characters may not be engaging, or the plot might be dull. Watching something you already know you’ll enjoy protects you from regret. You know if a TV show you’ve seen before will be thrilling, scary, or silly—and so you can be prepared to have a specific emotional experience that comes with watching the show.
“Re-watching shows that you’ve already seen gives you some predictability and control over your environment,” Derrick says. “You get to pick something to regulate your emotions for you, and you don’t have to pay attention as carefully as you would necessarily for a new show.”
You’ll enjoy a sense of community
Our social lives aren’t limited to in-person relationships with friends and family. Narratives and parasocial relationships—which are one-sided attachments to people you don’t know, like famous people, or who may not even exist, like fictional characters—can also serve a social purpose. “Through the television shows that we watch or the movies or the books that we read, even celebrities that we read about online, they can give us a sense of connection,” says Gabriel.
The magic of rewatching TV shows is that they can give you the warmth of being in the company of others without the threat of rejection or the hassle of scheduling a real-life interaction, one 2021 research article concluded. “When it comes to fictional characters, they are at our bidding,” says Raymond A. Mar, a professor of psychology at York University, who co-authored the study. “They are there whenever we need them, whenever we ask.”
The ability to lean on fictional narratives for a sense of comfort and community is a form of what psychologists call social snacking: quick, positive, daily interactions that impart a sense of belonging and connection. “The idea is that we can use other forms of engagement in order to fulfill our social needs,” Mar says. “When we engage with stories, we’re often imagining the social world of the story characters.”
Of course, Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine are no substitutes for real-life friends. But it’s not just you: rewatching their adventures really can make you feel better. “If you’re feeling a little bit lonely or are missing some of these feelings of belongingness,” he says, “interactions like watching a television show with a character could help us feel more connected to other people.”
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Contributor: Anna Goldfarb