Watching Your Favorite TV Show is a Form of Therapy

Why I don’t just love but need this show

Photo: NBC/Getty Images

I like to think I’m a therapist’s poster child.

I imagine an exponentially increasing slope on the imaginary line graph monitoring my mental health. I keep all my appointments and execute all professional instructions with anecdotal proof that “it’s working.” I’m funny, affable, and complimentary. I stay on my medication and incorporate holistic practices: regular exercise, healthy eating, social engagement. Check, check, check.

But I do have one closeted habit: a perennial evening companion who, for 22 minutes (or more), offers a nostalgic reprieve from the evening anxiety that starts revving up once the activity of the day dies down. I feel guilty about it, squandering the sacrosanct closing minutes of my day with unproductive vegetation, but I try not to think about it. I couldn’t cope otherwise.

I need The Office. I’m addicted.

I always had a hunch I wasn’t alone in this habit. It was evident in the bashful admissions from my peers: “I had to restart the series again last night.” Or the precision with which bits were referenced line for line and in the proliferation of memes and GIFs. All around me it was clear, The Office wasn’t just still relevant, it was a millennial security blanket.

Still, it baffled many when Nielsen published data that revealed The Office as the number one show on Netflix. Not Stranger Things, not Orange Is the New Black. The Office. By a landslide. The comedy, which premiered 14 years ago, pulled in 45.8 billion minutes watched during 2018 while Stranger Things invited only 27.8 billion. An astounding 49% of these viewers were between the ages of 18 and 34, making many of them members of my oft-resented generation.

And I think I know why.

Emotional relief

If streaming services were serious about currying favor with millennials and Generation Z, they would think of themselves as therapists instead of entertainers. They would look at their content as medicine instead of diversion. The Nielsen data has lifted a veil off of these generations’ compulsive dependence on The Office rarely exposed outside of confessional corners of the internet: Facebook groups and Reddit feeds where hoards of die-hard fans revel in their “Office addiction” and describe it as the wedge between them and “anxiety, loneliness, insomnia.”

What The Office provides is background noise. It’s how we debrief emotional periods of our lives: the breakups, the deadlines, the post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s how we avoid thinking. The show is a healing balm that stitches us together after each day’s undoing and lulls us to sleep.

Billie Eilish, who notably sampled parts of an episode from The Office in her #1 pop album, probably synthesized the obsession best in an interview with Elle magazine when she said, “It’s my therapy, bro. It’s like my little escape. As stupid as that sounds, that show has gotten me through my whole life, I feel like.” She’s not alone. On Reddit, dozens of feeds discuss addiction to The Office with titles like, “Is your Office addiction causing relationship problems?” and “Why watch other shows when one show does the trick?”

These questions yield vulnerable answers like “The Office has been a source of comfort and happiness in my life. During darker times when I was dealing with depression, anxiety, and loneliness, I would rewatch episodes every night” or “I’ve struggled with depression my whole life it seems. I can always rely on The Office to help pull me out of dark thoughts.” Perhaps most striking was one user’s description of the show as a “savior” they’re dedicated to “in sickness and in health.”

For others, The Office is a sleep aid.

“It’s my comfort food. I watch it every night before I go to sleep,” says one post. Another explains, “I play it on a continual loop every night before bed.” A new college student confesses, “I recently started University which is a big, new and almost scary thing. Every night when I get home I binge watch episodes of The Office, it just takes me away to another place far away from any problems.”

To older generations, this may sound like a delusional, escapist method of addressing serious mental health issues, but younger generations are far from obtuse about mental health. Millennials have been called the “therapy generation” for a reason. They are more accepting of others with mental illness and seek out mental health help more often than previous generations. Generation Z is following in kind as they are even more likely to receive treatment or therapy from a mental health professional than millennials. The explosion of social media and the internet has given younger generations platforms to discuss and learn about mental health issues with anonymity.

Yet none of this has changed the fact that they are also called the “loneliest,” “most anxious,” and “depressed” generations thanks to numerous studies. Despite their (comparatively) proactive efforts to manage mental and emotional health, there are still some ineffable symptoms that stubbornly stick around. And that’s where coping strategies like The Office can help.

Jeremy Clyman, PsyD, who is based in Massachusetts, actually tells his clients to watch The Office in those moments when someone’s in a pinch and needs a “straightforward injection of positive affect with no challenge to execution.” He considers it a healthy, effortless distraction “which is great for scenarios ranging from ‘I’m overwhelmed with distress and need to redirect my attention or calm down before something self-destructive happens’ to ‘I’m wide awake with insomnia in the middle of the night and need to at least distract from the inherently mounting frustration and worry.’” For a moment, someone struggling with panic, grief, or depression will have, at the very least, a humorous diversion.

Ideally, says Clyman, The Office wouldn’t be the first distress tolerance strategy. “I always suggest first and foremost to seek social support. Call a friend, a loved one,” he explains. “You can watch an episode of The Office instead, but the social contact is probably more powerful.” It’s also, of course, more challenging — especially right now. It’s much easier to click open Netflix than to vulnerably reach out to someone.

What ‘The Office’ provides is background noise. It’s how we debrief emotional periods of our lives: the break-ups, the deadlines, the post-traumatic stress disorder.

An escape from expectations

Isolating oneself with a screen exerts less energy than engaging in a distress-based conversation. But ease of use isn’t the only reason watching The Office is appealing to young adults. It’s a coping strategy disguised as a well-deserved leisure activity. It’s not therapy. So as long as you keep watching it under the guise of relaxation, you don’t have to tell yourself you’re failing to cope, that your life is too demanding. You’re still succeeding at “having it all.” You’re achieving perfection at everything, even self-care.

“Part of what I think is happening with shows like The Office is that it simplifies the world. The fantasy of the mundane is very calming for people who are living lives that often feel extraordinarily stressful.” explains Satya Doyle Byock, MA LPC, a psychotherapist based in Portland who specializes in what she calls “quarter-life clients” (millennials and Generation Z). “Of course, there’s also no goal in watching a show,” she says. “The goal is to stare at it until it’s over and maybe start another one.” And for quarter-lifers, another goal-based activity is the last thing Byock thinks they need.

“They were raised on being tested, graded, and assessed at every single turn.” Byock continues, “They grew up in a culture that had a heavy emphasis on what could be quantified, measured, weighed versus an emphasis on quality: quality of relationship, quality of companionship, quality of food, quality of time spent versus the amount of time spent.” It’s this quantifying philosophy with which Byock sees quarter-lifers approaching all facets of their life, even spaces where engaging with that approach impairs the goal of a particular activity in the first place.

Byock believes quarter-lifers grew up in a culture that prioritized left-brained living — a constant eye on the bottom line. The same aggressive form of ambition with which they approach standardized tests or Barbie-inspired beauty standards distorts even the most grounding techniques into quantifying displays. Yoga becomes a means to execute boast-worthy poses, #mindfulness can confer social cachet, and even meditation can be distorted by a subconscious goal.

“Whether it’s enlightenment, being a better person, a more gentle person, or even a less anxious person, the intention to meditate is still being sent through all the perfectionistic tendencies of quarter-lifers.” explains Byock, “So trying to meditate can seem like just another stressful thing to figure out how to do properly. Using coping mechanisms like The Office is not a character flaw of people who were born between certain years. It makes sense — given how they were raised, with very high standards and expectations. What quarter-lifers are finding is that streaming certain kinds of calming repetition is quieting for that anxiety or brain that won’t stop. It accomplishes things that trying to sit in meditation doesn’t accomplish for many people. It allows a lot of things to go to the background.”

Friends, Parks and Recreation, and other shows that made Netflix’s top 10 have the same effect. The realities of a hostile work environment, a bigoted boss, and the pace and cost of living in New York City in your twenties are all suspended in the sweet fantasy of these shows with low stakes. Will Dwight figure out who put his stapler in jello? Will Rachel hook up with Ross? These storylines offer generations in desperate need of reprieve a chance to live in a small stakes world.

For the generations that believe they are constantly under scrutiny and measurement, this is self-regulation you can do in the quiet and anonymity of your home. It’s self-care free from measurement. Tidy up all the loose emotional ends, leave it behind on your browser, and present the world with a polished functional adult the next morning. No one will ever know you’re “failing” at “adulting.”

The antidote to a brain you can’t shut off isn’t simple, or more accurately, it’s a little too simple for quarter-lifers. “I encourage people to try, if they can, to just sleep instead of putting anything more in their brain.” explains Byock, “I often think that a lot of mental health issues are similar to being a manic toddler. What often is the best prescription is not to keep running around playing with stuff but to wrestle against sleep until it finally just collapses on you like a wave.”

But, for a generation that excels at activity and competition, letting go of control is not a compelling solution. Quarter-lifers know how to study hard, work hard, and exercise hard, but stopping hard is more difficult. It’s much easier to turn to Michael and Dwight, laugh, and relax.

Metro-Detroit based writer and filmmaker. @CaseyKleczek

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