Watch­ing TV is good for you

The sur­pris­ing ben­e­fits of binge­ing on tele­vi­sion


Con­ven­tional TV watch­ing has seen im­mense changes in re­cent years, largely due to in­ter­net’s mo­bil­ity. But one thing is for sure: TV shows eas­ily re­main as most peo­ple’s fix­a­tion.

I once en­coun­tered some­one who claimed he “didn’t watch TV,” which I found weird. Even as an adult, I haven’t quite re­lin­quished my own TV ob­ses­sion. In fact, I rely on it for when re­al­ity be­comes too sti­fling. The variety of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional shows avail­able also makes it even harder to switch off.

And it’s not a com­pletely bad thing. Re­cent stud­ies show that you can reap health ben­e­fits from watch­ing TV. Dubbed by psy­chol­o­gists as a paraso­cial re­la­tion­ship, this one-sided in­ter­ac­tion is often pro­jected to­wards celebri­ties or fic­tional char­ac­ters, with the re­ceiv­ing party com­pletely obliv­i­ous of the giver’s ex­is­tence.

This can stem from a variety of rea­sons, with lone­li­ness as the most com­mon one. Leon Festinger’s so­cial com­par­i­son the­ory says we watch TV shows to make us feel bet­ter about our­selves. The short-lived eu­pho­ria can be sparked even within just a 30-minute time­frame. Case in point: the en­ter­tain­ing ab­sur­dity in ev­ery Keeping Up with the Kar­dashi­ans episode. Doesn’t be­ing a mere spec­ta­tor in an un­fold­ing drama make you feel good? You get to be around the fire with­out be­ing scorched.

TV shows also cre­ate a kind of in­ti­macy where we iden­tify with a char­ac­ter and develop some sort of one-sided bond with them. This sig­nif­i­cantly al­le­vi­ates lone­li­ness and nur­tures a sense of be­long­ing­ness.

Jen­nifer Barnes, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa, says this sim­u­lated in­ti­macy like­wise bears real-world ben­e­fits, such as hav­ing im­proved self-es­teem.

Festinger’s the­ory works both ways, how­ever, and there are times when watch­ing tele­vi­sion can leave us feel­ing worse, such as when a fa­vorite char­ac­ter gets killed or, ul­ti­mately, when the show it­self ends. In some in­stances, this sense of for­lorn can be ben­e­fi­cial. This is what philoso­phers have re­ferred to as the para­dox of tragedy, wherein un­for­tu­nate events tend to com­fort us.

It’s still un­clear why we are able to find plea­sure even in times of pain, but us­ing TV shows as cathar­sis for neg­a­tive emo­tions can be lib­er­at­ing. “Al­though we’re feel­ing sad­ness, the meta-emo­tion we’re feel­ing might be some­thing like grat­i­tude that we can feel this wide range of emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences,” Barnes says in an in­ter­view with Time. “We might ac­tu­ally feel glad that we can be em­pa­thetic and feel things like this on be­half of some­one else, even if they’re not real.”

But while compassion and em­pa­thy are good traits to develop, just a word of cau­tion: do not be overly at­tached to works of fic­tion, es­pe­cially when you’re suf­fer­ing from an un­der­ly­ing case of de­pres­sion.

Oc­ca­sional binge-watch­ing is good, but just like ev­ery­thing else in this world, do it in mod­er­a­tion.

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