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New Is Good, but Familiar Is Better - The power of Nostalgia TV

“I’ll be there for you” - more than just a catchy theme song or tag line, this is quite the reality of the TV show itself & of others of the like. It is no wonder that we find it on our screens over and over again, and love it every time. Reruns of our favourite shows never get old. It turns out that there’s a reason we can’t get enough of those reruns even if we’ve seen them several times and that is linked to our psyche.

Have you ever sat down, grabbed some popcorn and ordered a pizza, ready for the perfect movie night, and wondered what to watch followed with some scrolling right past countless award-winning, friend-recommended, highly-rated titles… only to pick out your favourite show or movie for the umpteenth time and settle in, satisfied. Revisiting the familiar, as it turns out, can have unexpected benefits and we will look at these later in this piece. Disney Classics, the Harry Potter series, Friends, Full House, can be considered as a form of comfort for many. You probably noticed that comfort and sense of peace when you’re watching these shows or movies on days or periods when you’re just not feeling your best self as they evoke an odd feeling of contentment fuelled by the nostalgia and warmth.

Comfort viewing refers to the shows or movies you watch or revisit when you need to feel better, almost like a comfort blanket in difficult times. The feel-good viewing session can help you relax, calm down, avoid negative thoughts for a while, and make you happier. Some of these shows and movies are like healthy connections or regressions to better or happier times where stressful situations or anxiety were not present in our lives. It can also provide a safe space to process turmoil or distress, as when watching familiar content, you know what to expect. Additionally, it serves as a way of nostalgia for a better time when things weren’t so stressful. It arouses those positive feelings and can become the new way of “switching off” from work. Comfort viewing or turning to ‘Nostalgia TV’ is different from binge watching as the latter essentially involves watching multiple episodes of a series one after the other, but it is not necessarily that the content is comforting. What we choose to rewatch is also telling as despite having such vast libraries of content so easily accessible to us through the likes of Netflix, Disney+, HBO, YouTube and the works, we choose to turn to ones provide us with comfort or perspective as they help us remember what matters; they help us remember to have hope and laugh.

In times of uncertainty, especially as the world is witnessing through the pandemic, comfort viewing became exceedingly popular for many people who looked for the solace and familiarity in content where they knew what to expect. At a time when the world was gripped with uncertainty, this provided a retreat to something familiar, reliable and reassuring and hence it had a very calming and soothing effect on watchers. A lot of our 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 - Comfort watching provided just that. We could 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. The nostalgia evoked by the content also helped people feel less lonely and helped put things into perspective as it reminds us that there have been, and once again will be, meaningful moments, good times and experiences in days to come. Turning to the known while battling the unknown can be very comforting.

At the outset, let us look at some of the reasons which drive us to resort to comfort watching and rewatching our favourite films and movies. At the outset, looking at it from an evolutionary perspective, humans are hardwired for repetition and we like it. Our ancestors from eras gone by would sit around fires and tell stories everyone knew and even as children we often felt a thrill when we knew all the lyrics to a favourite song or could recite every piece of dialogue from The Lion King. This ease of repetition is often referred to as the ‘Mere Exposure effect’ which explains that we tend to like things we have seen once at least. It is the ease of repetition that we feel with our favourite shows or movies that makes us feel so good when watching it. Also, in a culture where many of us are very familiar with media from our youth (think about the defining shows and movies when you were growing up!) rewatching beloved films and TV shows gives us a secondary shared experience around content which is known and loved by both ourselves and our peers. When it comes to obtaining the comfort from an old favourite piece, we have to do minimal effort to obtain that comfort as we have already done most of the mental work. There are no new plots to confuse, no new characters we need to invest in - We just have to hit “play” and that’s pretty much it.

There’s several benefits we can derive from turning to Nostalgia TV and this revolves around the term itself, nostalgia. Nostalgia permeates our inner life by being a source of consolation we can tap into anytime we feel lonely or wistful for a period of time that’s already passed. Research shows nostalgia can make people feel more optimistic about the future and can counteract loneliness and anxiety. We may rewatch the same shows that bring us to a more favourable time in our life, one you want to reminisce over, or we may rewatch shows or movies because of when we first watched them to evoke the same feelings we felt then. The essence here is that nostalgia goes further than the content of the movie or show - rewatching a show or movie isn’t merely about that show or movie but includes everything surrounding it. Some shows or movies hold a special place in our heart or memories, and so it is only natural that we’ll turn back to it when we desire to feel a certain way or remember something. In addition to this, given that nostalgia is a soft, caring emotion, it can help repair wounded relationships and strengthen healthy ones. It can help us to fulfil our social needs to some degree by helping us rediscover our identity and worth in our social network.

Another benefit is that comfort watching can help us to better understand ourselves as these shows shaped us and hence can help us to feel more connected to our inner selves. Interestingly, as we grow and evolve, the same shows we watched in our younger years can take on different meaning or we interpret them with new perspective. Nostalgia has its way of making you feel good for a reason. It can also help aid a healthy regression which can help be a useful tool for dealing with anxiety and mild depression.

Comfort watching also gives us something we crave as humans - a sense of control. We don’t realise how much we cling to control until we lose it and this is essentially why sudden events can traumatise us so much, such as losing a loved one or developing an illness. The pandemic only rendered the lack of control deeper, as we suddenly couldn’t leave our homes. There is the event itself, but then also what this event means to us and our fragile state of being. It’s the reminder that we’re not in control, that life doesn’t owe us anything, and anything could be taken from us. We don’t get to choose our future, as much as we’d like to think we can. As we begin to clutch at the small things in our control, one of them is around what we choose to watch. So while streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime serve only to inundate us with choices, we still get to choose what we’ll watch; and we’re in control of that. Building further on this, we tend to exercise this control with a safe choice, as if we were to choose a wildcard and not enjoy it, we would blame ourselves, considering precious time wasted and how unpredictable the experience felt in not knowing what to expect. When we pick something familiar, we know what is to come - We know, at least to an extent, how funny or sad or uplifting a show is, and so we’re controlling how we want to feel, what we want to experience.

All that being said, despite a plethora of choices available to us, we don’t select anything and everything to rewatch. We make our choices based on how we want to feel and what the content brings to us, especially in terms of the nostalgia element and control. So whether you find yourself feeling low and watching Ross and Rachel fall in love all over again on Friends, giggling every time Michelle says ‘You got it dude!’ on Full House, or holding back on your seat seeing Harry Potter slay Voldemort all over again through the series for the 44th time, go ahead and do it.


Written by: Vedica Podar

January, 2022


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