May 11, 2017

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.

 

This story was originally published in Northern Living, May 2017.

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