Have you ever sat down, popcorn popped and pizza ordered, ready for the perfect movie night, and wondered what to watch? If you’re anything like me, you’ve scrolled right past countless award-winning, friend-recommended, highly-rated titles . . . only to pick out your favorite episode of The Office for the umpteenth time and settle in, satisfied.
Satisfied, yes, but also maybe a little bit guilty, incurious, or all-around un-creative for continually rewatching your faves. Well, consider this your permission to think a little differently.
Revisiting the familiar, as it turns out, can have unexpected benefits.
What psychology says: the familiarity of rewatching
We like repetition. It’s hardwired into our humanity. Ancestors from eras gone by would sit around fires and tell stories everyone knew. Even we, as children, felt a heady thrill when we knew all the lyrics to a favorite song or could recite every piece of dialogue from The Lion King.
One of the reasons rewatching shows and films makes us feel so good is the sense of ease repetition invites. There’s a phenomenon known in psychology as the mere exposure effect which names the fact that we tend to like things we’ve already seen at least once. In this case, familiarity breeds contentment.
Think about what we tend to do when we meet up with old friends: we often spend a large part of our time together reliving old memories, laughing at times gone by, and recounting the glory days. Revisiting those shared experiences is a large part of what makes getting together with old friends enjoyable.
In a culture where many of us are very familiar with media from our youth (some of us could probably carry on an entire conversation in Twilight memes and Disney puns), rewatching beloved films and TV shows gives us a secondary shared experience: access to inside jokes and references that span an entire generation. Perhaps when we return to the media known and loved by both ourselves and our peers, our brains are looking for that same sense of chummy nostalgia and pleasant familiarity that we get when we reunite with our college roommates.
Nostalgia: comfort in the midst of chaos
Nostalgia itself is a powerful source of consolation. In one study, psychologists at North Dakota State University induced feelings of nostalgia in a group of adults. They did so by letting the study participants listen to particularly poignant songs from their pasts. Compared to a control group, these listeners were more likely to feel “loved” and that “life is worth living.”
Who wouldn’t want that solace, especially when confronted by difficult circumstances? The hit of comfort we get from rewatching a beloved show (or rereading a favorite book) is very attractive to our brains. The amount of work we have to do to obtain this comfort is very minimal. In fact, we’ve already done all 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”—that’s it.
What we choose to rewatch is also telling. As one psychologist noted, the shows or movies we rewatch tend to be the ones that “provide us with comfort or perspective.” In other words: we use these shows to reorient and ground ourselves. They help us remember what matters; they help us remember to have hope and laugh.
And they may even tell us a little bit about ourselves. One study noted that rewatching movies (as well as rereading books and revisiting favorite places) often results in a deeper awareness of our histories. That show we grew up with may have helped establish our senses of humor, for example, or in some other way influenced who we were and are. (For me, this came into sharp focus when my husband and I realized at the same instant that my dark sense of humor is largely a deep-seated appreciation for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.)
The ease of returning to our stand-bys
Watching new things can often feel like a task or a lesson instead of light amusement. With the arrival of (it seems) a different new streaming service every month, each of which updates its offerings constantly, it can feel absolutely exhausting to keep up with the sheer amount of content.
Add to that the constant recommendations from friends, families, and strangers on the internet to watch their favorite shows? Keeping up can suddenly feel impossible. Opting instead to rewatch something you know you’ll love can offer the same relief you feel when a friend cancels plans last-minute: you can change into something more comfortable, curl up, and let your brain pleasantly wander while a familiar show plays in the background.
Some shows are even written to improve upon a second viewing. For example, 30 Rock and similar shows often include so many jokes and visual gags per minute that viewers report picking up more nuances with every rewatch.
Hope for your housemates
Your rewatching habit (however valid, however comforting!) can often be annoying to roommates, friends, and family who are tired of your watching Friends for the thousandth time this year. However, they can take heart—and potentially use a hack that my husband recently discovered.
Just prior to a recent family movie night, he came to me with a suggestion for a very well-reviewed but brand-new (oh no!) movie that he wanted us to watch together for the first time. When I counter-proposed that we comfortably put on something more familiar, he made the following (and, I have to admit, logically sound) point: you can’t rewatch something until you’ve seen it the first time. If I want to expand my stable of rewatch material, I do need to prewatch things first.
“Once we get the first watching out of the way,” he argued, “you can rewatch this whenever you want!”
While it’s good to know that I can get into the headspace to see something new every now and again, it’s also good to know that rewatching or rereading something does provide specific benefits to my brain. It’s also good info for my future self-soothing: when I’m anxious, nervous, or upset, I can save myself some scrolling time and just choose an old faithful for instant familiarity and comfort.