The Health Benefits of Revisiting Your Favorite Books and TV Shows
During Covid-19, spending time with old fictional friends could pay dividends
It’s often said that Netflix and other streaming services have ushered in a golden era of high-quality television. There are so many great new shows to watch that some viewers are using accelerated playback options to binge content more quickly. The fast-cast is replacing the broadcast.
If the task of hacking through your streaming queues already feels daunting, the idea of wasting precious tube time rewatching familiar shows or movies may seem anathema. But in fact, experts say revisiting much-loved shows, movies, or books may offer health incentives that unfamiliar content can’t match.
Shira Gabriel, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. A lot of her published work has explored a concept she and her colleagues have termed the “social surrogacy hypothesis.” It’s the idea that spending time with fictional characters can in some ways mimic the benefits of spending time with real-world friends or loved ones.
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Over and over again, research has found that social isolation and the loneliness it kindles can raise a person’s risk for depression and anxiety. There’s evidence that the human brain is so hardwired for contact with others that it begins to bug out — to feel paranoid and stressed — when that contact is absent. A 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that social isolation, perhaps as a result of the stress it causes, may actually turn down the activity of immune system genes that are involved in defending the body from viruses. In the midst of Covid-19 and social distancing directives, all of this research is hitting home.
Spending time with fictional characters can in some ways mimic the benefits of spending time with real-world friends or loved ones.
“We evolved to be a really social species, and this need for social connections is primal in us,” Gabriel says. Her research suggests that revisiting beloved characters in books or TV could partly scratch the psychological and existential itch created by a lack of human contact.
In one 2009 study, Gabriel and her colleagues found that people felt less lonely after watching a favorite TV show. They also found that time spent with favorite fictional characters could cheer people up and lift their self-esteem after an argument with a real-life friend or family member. “Fictional worlds can really pull us in — that’s part of what’s enjoyable about them,” she says. “And we found that when we engage with narratives and characters, our brains aren’t able to differentiate between what’s real and not real.”
In another study, this one from 2011, Gabriel and her co-authors asked fans to reread passages of the Harry Potter or Twilight books. “Even though they logically knew they weren’t vampires or students at Hogwarts, people unconsciously became a part of that world and felt like they were wizards or vampires, and this made them feel happier and more socially connected,” she says.
While new seasons of a favorite TV show or installments of a much-loved book series could provide many of the same benefits, Gabriel says there is likely something particularly comforting about rewatching or rereading. “It provides a safer way to feel connected, because you know how it’s going to turn out — you know that Jim and Pam are going to get together — so there’s no risk of any surprise heartbreak or disappointment,” she says.
When choosing what to watch or read again, Gabriel says it’s ideal if the characters interact in ways that resemble social groups in the real world. She mentions the workplace gang in Parks and Recreation and the Central Perk pack in Friends as two good examples. “It needs to have a community that your brain can link onto and feel as though you’re a part of,” she says.
Apart from those social surrogacy benefits, reconsuming a piece of media can promote learning and a deeper understanding. Not surprisingly, studies have found that rereading a piece of text leads to better comprehension and improved test scores when compared to a single reading. More research — much of it on children, who often show a preference for repeat viewings and readings — has found that revisiting a text or show leads to a fuller grasp of a work’s themes and meanings.
“By watching something old, you find out you are new.”
There may be other, richer pleasures associated with reconsuming media. A 2011 study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that returning to a much-loved book or TV show — especially one that a person hasn’t read or watched in years — can open up new pathways of personal insight. “It’s almost like a portkey to self-exploration,” says Cristel Russell, PhD, co-author of that study and a professor of marketing at the Pepperdine University Graziadio Business School. “The benefit we often saw was one of growth, or an ability to rediscover something with a new perspective and outlook.”
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In some ways, Russell compares the experience of revisiting an old book or film to visiting a childhood home. While these visits can stir up memories and maybe nostalgia, they also tend to spark periods of introspection and self-reflection. “But while places can change, books or films don’t change,” she says. The rereader or rewatcher is the element of the equation that’s different. Russell’s study found that people are aware of these differences — that they can recall who they were when they last read a book or watched a film — and they’re able to contrast their new self with their old self in ways that lead to personal insight and growth.
“By watching something old, you find out you are new,” Russell says.