Why Are Our Comfort Shows & Movies So Soothing, Anyway? A Psychologist Explains

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, staying home was arguably one of the best ways to maintain physical health and safety. For a lot of people, that meant, at least occasionally, tuning out what was happening in the world and tuning in to a show or movie. Data from Hub Entertainment Research in 2021 showed that 37% of Americans said they were watching "a lot more" TV than their pre-pandemic days (via Marketing Charts).


For those who spent more time indoors, whether by choice or due to a forced lockdown, it makes sense that watching TV would be a common way to pass the time. But besides being a convenient distraction, TV shows and movies can also be a source of comfort during tumultuous times. A 2022 survey conducted by Philo and OnePoll found that 55% of Americans use TV to self-soothe when dealing with stress and anxiety, and 56% regularly watch "comfort" shows or movies.

To find out why we're so obsessed with "Ted Lasso" and other comfort content, Glam spoke to clinical psychologist and chief operating officer at Bespoke Treatment Dr. John Dolores, Ph.D., J.D., FACHE. The mental health expert gave us several exclusive insights, including the fact that comfort TV and movies help to minimize loneliness and uncertainty while helping us deal with our problems and emotions. 


Comfort shows and movies put problems into perspective

When you're going through it, it can help to have someone in your corner who understands what you're feeling. But when your friends seem to be thriving and everyone on social media only displays the highlights of their lives, you might find comfort in watching a struggling TV character. "Certain shows and characters utilize a pattern of trivializing or romanticizing real-world problems to allow viewers to put their own lives into perspective and reflect on their own reality," Dr. John Dolores exclusively shares with Glam. "Witnessing characters face and overcome relatable human experiences, challenges, and circumstances can remind viewers of their own strength and growth, which reinforces self-security." In other words, seeing an issue play out on-screen can make it easier to cope with in real life.


And because comfort shows and movies often tie up plots with crowd-pleasing happy endings, they can remind you that your own happy ending may be just around the corner, too. "These shows also offer portrayals that allow viewers to relive their own trauma and learn that they are temporary setbacks," adds Dr. Dolores. "Ultimately, these effects help individuals experience satisfaction and relaxation from watching their favorite comfort shows."

They can help you process your emotions

Many popular comfort programs, like "Schitt's Creek" and "Friends," lean into not-super-serious, mostly feel-good territory, and the funny antics and goofy characters can be just what you need to lighten the mental load after a tough day. But as Dr. John Dolores reveals, comfort shows and movies also work to help you channel your emotions in a safe, relatively risk-free way. "The engaging storylines, immersive worlds, and relatable fictional characters on TV shows often trigger a wide range of emotions within their viewers," Dr. Dolores says. "By allowing viewers to experience joy, pleasure, pure entertainment, and even sadness and loss, these forms of media can act as emotional catharsis through which viewers can release pent-up emotions and experience emotional regulation."


As the psychologist tells Glam exclusively, this effect can actually get you hooked on your favorite comfort show, which might be why you can't fall asleep without watching at least three episodes of "Will & Grace." Just be sure to find other healthy ways to feel your feelings, too, like talking them out with a friend or journaling.

Comfort content eliminates uncertainty

If you keep rewatching the same TV show or movie, even though you can basically recite every line and already know exactly what will happen, your habit makes sense from a psychological standpoint, according to Dr. John Dolores. "Many viewers tend to enjoy the soothing effect that the familiarity of comfort shows provides because they trigger little to no mental challenge, therefore keeping the activity from being mentally exhausting and emotionally overwhelming," Dr. Dolores tells us exclusively. "Watching shows that an individual is already familiar with can help their brain function better because it stimulates less mental load and demands less emotional work." When you're drained after dealing with unpredictable ups and downs throughout the day, a favorite show or movie can offer some relief, especially when the plot falls into place exactly as expected.


Dr. Dolores adds that the benefit isn't only felt mentally — it can impact you physically, too. "Being able to predict the trajectory of the story often causes individuals to absorb the narratives without being overwhelmed, helping activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the body's relaxation response." To put it in perspective, comfort shows might affect the nervous system in ways similar to doing yoga or walking in nature, per the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Relaxing shows and movies might minimize loneliness

Ever wish you could be besties with a TV or movie character? The connection you feel to your favorite fictional person is totally normal, Dr. John Dolores tells Glam in an exclusive chat, and it might be why you feel so at ease watching them on your screen. "The parasocial relationships people were able to build with their favorite shows, and the narrative and characters within, allow viewers to see themselves reflected in their shows' struggles and victories," explains Dr. Dolores. "They also portray situations and personas that drive people to feel empathy with the characters. This helps evoke a sense of being understood and validated, as well as create a sense of connection and emotional support, that ultimately alleviates feelings of loneliness and social isolation."


This parasocial bond might be why comfort TV was so popular during the pandemic or why you might clock extra time zoning out to your favorite show when you're lonely, like after moving to a new city or going through a breakup. Like with anything, however, you can always have too much of a good thing. If you're finding more comfort and connection from sitcoms and K-dramas than real life, it might be time to switch off your screen and focus on your own life's storyline.