I‘m a lover of TV and movies, and especially so during winter months, when it’s often cold and gray outside. With the weather and small number of daylight hours in cahoots, urging me to cuddle up on the couch with my remote, it only makes sense that I’d want to lean in. What’s surprising to me, though, is that rather than watch the endless-seeming options of new content available on what feels like a million different streaming platforms, I often find myself wanting to visit my old fictional friends with a rewatch of TV shows and movies I’ve already seen.
Sometimes I do like to watch new content, but I still find myself navigating to Netflix to watch New Girl again regularly. The familiar plot points and characters feel as warm and comforting as my blanket.
It turns out there’s a reason we like to watch the same TV shows and movies, and that has to do with the relationships we build with the characters and the comfort we get from watching something familiar. Retreating back to the familiar can be a healing balm for several reasons.
Rewatching TV shows and movies can relieve decision fatigue
Seeking out the familiar—in this case, a beloved TV show or movie—is a way to calm ourselves after a long day spent making decisions. Some choices are higher-stakes than others, but even seemingly inconsequential situations—like needing to plan what’s for dinner—can lead to decision fatigue.
Picking a TV show to watch is among the lower-pressure decisions you’ll encounter throughout the day, but can still contribute to a sense of feeling overwhelmed by choice (see: countless options on a zillion platforms). Seeing familiar storylines and faces can give the brain a rest from dealing with the unknown and the need to make decisions.
“Watching something comforting can take away the stress involved in the infinite choices at our disposal and the consequential energy drain” —Sabrina Romanoff, PhD
“Watching something comforting can take away the stress involved in the infinite choices at our disposal and the consequential energy drain,” says licensed psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PhD. The same also explains why we also just like the perceived safety of the familiar, she says.
Status quo bias, the idea that people choose to stick with what they know instead of something new when confronted with a choice between the two, is involved here, too. Sticking with familiar choices that we know the outcome of is a defense mechanism that “protects against disappointment, and provides predictability and the illusion of control over your environment,” Dr. Romanoff says.
A rewatch can make you feel like you’re catching up with friends
Our familiarity with the characters in these shows is at play, too. For me, repeated rewatches of New Girl feels like catching up with old friends. This allows me to form parasocial relationships, or relationships of the imagination, where I develop a sense of connection to these characters who not only can’t reciprocate my feelings but also don’t even exist.
If parasocial relationships grow intense to the point of absorbing your thoughts or shifting your daily functioning, it may be cause for concern and perhaps expert intervention. But a more casual dynamic—like a celebrity crush—stands to provide interpersonal needs, like “filling a social or romantic void in your life, gaining a sense of support or inspiration from that person, or having strong feelings of admiration for them,” therapist Emily Simonian, LMFT, head of learning at nationwide therapy practice Thriveworks previously told Well+Good.
Characters with whom we have a parasocial relationship can be relatable, or be a mirror or lens to examine or reflect on our own emotions and experiences, says Daniel Lieberman, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences: “Large parts of our brain are dedicated to forming social relationships, and we actually develop a connection to the characters and experience feelings that are similar to how we feel about our friends.”
After a long day, doing all that you do, doesn’t it make sense that you’d want to just hang out with the friends you already know?
Are there downsides to rewatching the TV shows and movies?
Not quite, but it’s important to understand the role that nostalgia plays in leading someone to want to rewatch TV shows and movies. For me, New Girl evokes memories of family and feelings of closeness to them. I used to watch it with my little brother who now lives across the country, so watching it on my own reminds me of spending time with him, which is at once nice and sad.
Nostalgia is often regarded as a positive sensation associated with glorifying the past, but research has also linked it to feelings of disappointment in the present. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that it can present as a mixed-to-negative emotion in day-to-day life. In the study, a group of undergraduate students who completed daily questionnaires reported feeling more nostalgic on days when they were stressed and lonely.
But is this behavior ever unhealthy? It can be if we rely on the familiar to the point where we don’t engage with new experiences. The key is to strike a balance between the new and familiar; while new experiences can feel uncomfortable and scary, they’re necessary for continued growth. “What the brain needs is a mixture, and different individuals require different mixtures of the novel and familiar,” Dr. Lieberman says. “The danger is getting caught in a rut, and at that point it’s not going to contribute to your mental well-being, it’s going to detract from it.”
But, that advice applies to new experiences in the scope of your whole life, not just your TV- and movie-viewing preferences. With that in mind, I’ll continue to feel great about watching New Girl on loop, but I’ll also remember to not adopt “embracing the familiar” as my life’s mantra. There’s value in seeking out new things, whether it’s a new show or a more impactful life decision.