If you’re reading this, you’re probably stressed. Never fear: We’ve dug through the evidence to reveal what science really says about finding zen—and holding onto it through tough times. Want to try meditation? Take better baths? Stop anxiety in its tracks? Welcome to Calm Month.
It’s a habit clipped straight from a 1950s sitcom: Get home from work, have dinner, and sink into the couch to wind down in front of the TV. Increasingly, though, the lines between office time and downtime (or, in work-from-home pandemic parlance, “bad” screens and “good” screens) have begun to blur. According to Nielsen’s latest Total Audience Report, some 29 percent of remote workers have the TV on during billable hours on the daily. Nielsen’s numbers show that the average American adult logs 5 hours and 56 minutes of cumulative video watching each day.
Amid echoes of parental warnings that too much TV will “rot your brain,” it’s worth asking if there is value in the tube’s ability to help us escape. Can this long-standing habit truly help soothe your mind and body? The simple act of distraction surely has benefits, but with TV in particular, the ability to de-stress depends on what—and how—you watch. And, as with any potential vice, even if the tube does help you find some chill, too much can turn any initial positive impacts into negatives.
In terms of brain activity, television is a mixed bag, and will probably never help achieve a zen-like meditative state. Relaxation comes when your brainwave patterns shift, from the beta waves that focus on a project or task to the meandering alpha waves that casually move all our new experiences into memory. One 1980 EEG study, for example, found more alpha-wave activity during TV viewing than reading. But more-recent research in the journal Media Psychology, which looked specifically at zippy commercials designed to grab attention, also indicates that the brain’s visual processing doesn’t power down in front of the tube.
What TV shows to watch to relax
In the right circumstances, television may help the brain recharge. A pair of 2012 studies in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that rewatching old favorites can give us a mental boost. When, say, streaming an episode of The Office for the fifth (or 20th) time, you’re among familiar, beloved characters and know what’s going to happen. This reliability, the authors posit, makes your noggin feel safe, which allows it to recharge.
This type of nostalgic re-watching has spiked during the pandemic. A survey conducted early in lockdown by Nielsen, Billboard, and MCR Data found that 54 percent of viewers had tapped into an old favorite. Revisiting familiar plot lines certainly offers a degree of comfort, but Viale Wright, a clinical psychologist and senior director for healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association, points out that it’s also about how much focus we lend to things we’ve already seen. “I would argue that we’re not always paying attention,” she says,
Action movies, horror films, and (shudder) the news, can have the opposite effect. Uncertainty about what will happen next can trigger our body’s fight or flight response, spiking stress hormones like serotonin. But Wright cautions that every individual is different. For some, immersion into even high-drama fictional worlds can offer escape—albeit temporary.
How much TV is too much TV?
Unfortunately, there is such a thing as too much TV. In children, excessive screen time has been linked to developmental delays and behavioral issues. For adults, habitual binge watching correlates with instances of depression, disturbed sleep, and even addiction. While the jury is still out on just which problems can actually be caused or worsened by staring at a glowing rectangle, if any, it still stands to reason that constant binge-watching is a bad idea.
“Anything can be taken to the extreme,” Wright says. The occasional Saturday lost in The Crown probably isn’t worrisome. “But if it’s your only coping mechanism—if you have nothing except TV—then that’s probably problematic.”
A June 2020 review of 28 binge-watching studies in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health landed on similarly double-edged conclusions. Bingeing a new series can offer social connection through shared fandom, but hours in front of the screen can also become isolating. Series can offer an emotional escape from day-to-day stressors, but they can also leave viewers wound up after the viewing session is over—anxious to continue, or stuck ruminating on cliffhangers when they’re trying to sleep. “Hanging out” with beloved characters from your favorite shows can be comforting, but also runs the risk of forming unhealthy emotional attachments to fictional people over flesh-and-blood ones.
Any excessive, successive viewing, however, does come with real risks. The instant emotional gratification that comes from firing up Hulu and sinking into a hours-long session is similar to coping strategies seen in people with addictions to other digital media, like video games, the review authors summarized. For example, habitual bingers tend to feel a loss of control and neglectful of their day-to-day responsibilities while they’re watching, and anxious and unable to focus in between viewings.
How ambient noise can help improve focus
There are folks for whom TV is less of a means of escape than it is a near-constant companion. As the Nielsen data indicate, it’s common to keep the tube on in the background during the workday, even if you’re not paying strict attention to it. According to Nielsen’s survey, more than one-quarter of home-office workers admit they watch TV while logged onto the jobs at least once a week.
Our collective hunger for ignorable programming has led some to speculate that streaming services like Netflix are now creating series that were never intended to pull our focus. In a 2020 column, New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka dubbed the genre “ambient TV,” offering up Netflix’s Emily in Paris as the exemplar. The series, rife with cliche character tropes and predictable plot lines, he contends, offers little worth looking up from your phone to take in. In essence, it offers a similar level of comfort as a Parks & Recreation re-run: so trite that watching it for the first time involves as little suspense as rewatching a familiar show.
Some research indicates that this kind of low-key distraction can actually help you complete creative tasks. “If you have chatter or background noise and you cannot make sense of it—it’s meant to be ignored—that distracts your brain to a moderate level and makes you think in a broader manner or in a more abstract way,” says Ravi Mehta, an associate professor of marketing in the business administration at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who’s looked at the effect of background noise on cognition. In a 2012 study he co-authored, participants who were exposed to ambient sound around the level of typical coffeehouse conversation performed better at a creative task (making associations between seemingly unrelated words) than those who sat in silence.
Though limited, that finding does offer upsides for specific workday stressors. The white noise of the TV set may help ease anxiety-provoking mental roadblocks for folks in creative fields, but it might actually hinder attention during tasks that require a lot of focus and attention to detail, like accounting.
But, Mehta points out, the distraction doesn’t necessarily have to be TV. Any ambient sound that mimics the murmur of people talking and moving in the background should have the same effects. Spotify channels and websites like Coffitivity, for instance, recreate the din of a busy cafe right in your headphones without ever having to turn to the tube.