With the COVID-19 pandemic, a shaky economy, and one of the most contentious elections in recent history, 2020 has been a particularly rough year for all of us. Amid so much stress, uncertainty—and the insomnia that often comes with it—it’s no wonder many of us have been turning to feel-good shows like Friends to tune out before bed.
As it turns out, late-night binge-watching has nearly doubled since the novel coronavirus first hit the U.S., per data released from Comcast. And while high-stakes dramas remain popular, some of the most-loved shows nationwide are comedies, sitcoms, and cartoons.
What is it about these shows that makes them so relaxing and sleep-inducing? Read on for the psychology behind comfort-watching, plus a round-up of the best TV shows to help you sleep.
Why certain TV shows help you sleep
There are plenty of reasons why comfort TV might help you relax, fall asleep, or even cut down on wake-ups due to pandemic-induced anxiety dreams.
For one, watching or rewatching lighthearted shows doesn’t take much mental effort. “It allows your brain to shut off a little,” says Sari Chait, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Newton, Mass. And if you love comedies like Schitt’s Creek, Black-ish, or Rick & Morty, laughter’s also a natural stress and tension reliever, per the Mayo Clinic.
Another benefit of watching TV shows to help you sleep is the soothing effect of nostalgia, which could help dial down end-of-day stress and anxiety. With kitschy laugh tracks and no need for social distancing, shows like That 70’s Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or even cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants can take you back to simpler, pre-COVID times.
Finally, spending time with characters who feel almost like your real friends and family (think: the New Girl crew or even your favorite contestants on The Great British Bake Off) could also help ease a low mood or stress over so many canceled plans. Research shows watching your favorite folks on TV can make you feel less lonely and cheer you up—even after real-life problems get you down.
All in all, comfort TV gets the stamp of approval from Chait as a fun way to wind down for a better night’s sleep.
However, there is one important caveat: Watching TV in bed could train your brain to think it’s OK to be awake in what should be a dedicated space for sleep and sex.
Plus, lots of blue light just before bedtime may also make it harder for you to switch into sleep mode, notes Chait.
An easy fix? Schedule in some screen-free time before you hit the sheets.
Best TV shows to help you sleep
If you need to get your mind off of everything, now’s the perfect time to update your watch list. Here are four of the best comfort TV shows to start with, according to our resident entertainment writer Chris McKittrick.
With a sugary-sweet jingle, someone-for-everyone cast, and a whopping 236 binge-worthy episodes, Friends checks off all of the boxes for comfort TV.
“Friends is so inescapable in our culture that even people who did not watch the series regularly are familiar with the details of the most popular episodes,” says McKittrick. “For many people—even those who weren’t born when the series started—watching Friends is a comfort unmatched by any other television series.” Smelly cat, anyone?
How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother revitalized the ensemble sitcom for a new generation, making it a “spiritual successor” of sorts to Friends, says McKittrick.
Here’s a reason to speed through all nine seasons: The ending is epic, but viewers are deeply split on what to make of it. “Start from the beginning, and you can eventually add your voice to the debate of whether or not the series finale is one of the best or worse in television history,” says McKittrick.
Watch this nine-season mockumentary, and you’re guaranteed to discover a favorite character—or many—among the hilarious office employees of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.
“Even though it’s been off the air for seven years, its running jokes like Michael Scott’s seemingly endless number of malapropisms continue to bring smiles to the faces of fans,” says McKittrick. And if you could use a laugh, Jim Halpert’s pranks on the ever-grumpy Dwight Schrute should do the trick.
The Golden Girls
Betty White is a national treasure, and one big reason why is the sitcom The Golden Girls. “A show about four old women who live together in Miami might not sound like comedy gold to everyone, but there is a reason why this series has remained popular for three decades and counting,” says McKittrick. “It is a delightful mix of comedy and heartfelt friendship.”
Ready for more TV fun? We put together this list of TV moments that turned out to be all just a dream.