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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Why Binge-Watching Is Better Than Setting New Year's Resolutions

If you're one of the 223 million Netflix subscribers or 47 million Hulu subscribers, I have good news. You don't have to feel guilty binge-watching your favorite series, movies, or documentaries. You are likely to get more from jotting down observations than writing out your New Year's resolutions.

As a life coach, I'm always on the hunt for easy ways for busy clients to make improvements in their lives. Many will tell me they have little energy after a day of meetings at work or chasing after kids at home. Instead of tackling things they "should" be doing, they only want to wind down and be entertained.

I could relate. I also noticed that watching an episode of a popular K-drama didn't leave me feeling as bad or as empty as scrolling through social media did.

I started suggesting that clients permit themselves to watch programs they would enjoy and then record what they watched and how it made them feel. Not only did they look forward to doing this exercise, but they were also surprised at what it revealed about themselves and how it helped them make unexpected enhancements in their day-to-day lives.

 Observing them and reviewing notes of my viewing behavior, I realized we were harnessing the power of stories.

Why We’re Attracted to Stories

“Watching story is how we learn to be human. It is fundamentally important. I don’t think we should condescend to it and see it as junk behavior. It’s anything but,” says Will Storr, author of The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better.

In a phone conversation, he described how the first stories told were critical to survival. “Back in the day, there was no police service or judiciary or written law. We had to control each other’s behavior and keep everybody cooperating with tribal gossip.”

Storr delineated two functions of gossip. From reputation gossip, we learn who is good and who is bad, thus teaching us how to be. From strategy learning gossip, we learn how people succeed or fail, win or lose.

“The reason humans evolve language is to swap gossip. It’s thought that 65 percent of our conversation is gossip, and that’s true all around the world, for men and women. It’s universal. Even children begin to sort of gossip around the age of 2. As soon as they can speak, they start telling stories about other people.”

We are, of course, drawn to stories of protagonists who are similar to us or experiences that are similar to ours. We can learn from their stories. But we are also capable of relating to stories of those we have little in common with. Lisa Cron, the author of three books on the power of story, including her latest, Story or Die: How to Use Brain Science to Engage, Persuade, and Change Minds in Business and in Life, argues that we’re not attracted to logic or plot. “We come to story to watch something in someone’s belief system shift and see the consequence of that. Emotion telegraphs meaning to us.”

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“Story is the world’s first virtual reality, minus the geeky visor,” says Cron. “They’ve done fMRI studies that show when you’re lost in the story, the same areas of your brain light up as if you were doing what the protagonist is doing.”

This explains why despite having nothing in common with war veteran David Budd in Bodyguard, I wept with relief when he finally sought out treatment for his PTSD.

“We’re affected by stories every minute of the day, and almost always we’re not aware of it,” said Cron. 

Therefore, we can uncover hidden feelings and desires and learn unexpected lessons when we allow ourselves to watch a movie we’re drawn to. For example, I had long known that in every Korean series or movie, there is always a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Think of Parasite, Crash Landing on You, and Itaewon Class. It’s a national obsession. But recently I noticed that even when I’m watching American films and series, I’m attracted to the parts that portray class struggle, even when it is not central to the story, as in Gilmore GirlsWhite Lotus, or Knives Out. As a result, I’ve started to be more conscious of how I perceive and relate to others whom I perceive as richer or poorer than me.

Meanwhile, one client began to understand why she found predictable rom-coms so relaxing and appealing. After spending her day mediating conflicts between warring parties at work, she appreciates not only that the endings are happy but that all the loose ends are neatly tied. Now, rather than be embarrassed by what she is watching, she gives herself permission to enjoy her evening and nourish herself rather than go to bed defeated and depleted.

How to Capitalize on Your Binge-Watching

It’s easy to get started.

First, make a simple record of what you watched. Record the date, the title, and maybe the episode number. If you have a bit more time, add some notes to remind you of what you saw.

Another way to get started with this exercise is to start a list of shows you recall enjoying in the past.

Then, later, maybe the next morning, take a few moments to answer some questions:

What part, if any, did you most enjoy?What, if anything, captured your attention or curiosity?When did you feel any strong emotions? (This was suggested by Storr.)

Keep your answers short to make this easy. You may find as you go that you'd like to record other information relevant to you. For example, if you find you love watching cooking shows, you may want to make note of a technique you want to try. You may also want to start a separate list of titles you want to watch next.

After a couple of weeks or more, take a moment to look back at what you've captured. Look for themes and through lines. Then, explore ways to go deeper. For example, you may find that you want to do some research about the protagonist or actor, about different ways similar stories are told, or more about the subject matter.

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 There are a variety of tools you can use to keep track of viewing behavior. The keys are to find what works for you and avoid friction. 

Digital Tools

If you prefer something digital, I suggest something easily accessible like the native Notes app on your iPhone or Google Keep on your Android phone. Evernote is another popular option you may already be using. For these, I suggest adding a new folder and creating a new note for each day.

If you’re already streaming on your computer and like the idea of using rows for each day and columns for different pieces of information, you could use spreadsheet software you’re already familiar with, such as Microsoft Excel, Numbers, or Google Sheets. If you don’t mind learning a new program and want to get a bit more creative, you might like Notion, which is highly customizable and can accommodate longer pieces of text, attachments, or images.

There are also journal apps that make it easy to add daily entries, like Day One or Diaro.

To keep your entries short and searchable, be consistent with the terms you use, or try hashtags. For example, if you start noticing that you are drawn to stories about con artists or sibling rivalry, you could add #conartist or #siblingrivalry to your entry.

Non-Digital Tools

To avoid getting distracted by your digital device while you’re watching, note cards are a great option. You could add the date and what you watched along with maybe the genre on one side and then your reflections on the other. This option is helpful if you want to sort your cards in different ways to look for different themes.

If you use a notebook, I suggest a small one, using both pages when open. Put the date and title on the left-side page and add observations to the right. This allows you to find entries by looking at one side of your notebook while flipping through it quickly.

The great thing about this exercise is that you can expand it to other types of stories beyond television and film. You can add books, poems, songs, plays, and musicals. You might also want to add stories you hear on a podcast or see in the news.

So instead of resolving to exercise more, only to end up with an unused gym membership, try keeping track of your viewing habits this holiday season. Rather than feel ashamed or label yourself a “couch potato,” enjoy your time with story and harness its power.

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