Louis CK said it best, as he usually does. “Everything that makes you happy is going to end at some point.”
He wasn’t talking about bingewatching, but he might as well have been.
According to a survey by Netflix, 61% of viewers self-identify as bingewatchers. Which means that they consume a series in its entirety, possibly even in one sitting, rather than over the course of many weeks and months.
Bingewatching Is Unhealthy
It’s been a little under two years since Breaking Bad ended—or exactly 731 days and 10 hours, but who’s counting?—and we still feel empty inside when we see the empty queue on the DVR.
What is that empty feeling? We call it Post-Bingewatching Anxiety Disorder.
The onset can be sudden. Often within minutes of finishing the final episode of a 7-season series you just consumed in its entirety. It doesn’t matter if your dependence is on dramas—like Homeland, The Sopranos, or Game of Thrones—or if you’re jonesing for a steady stream of sitcoms—like The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Arrested Development—the withdrawal symptoms are the same when the series is over.
Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and author of A Happy You, explains why.
“It can become your purpose, or your meaning in life. Not necessarily that if someone asked you, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’, you’d say, ‘Watching Breaking Bad.’ But subconsciously, that’s exactly what that becomes,” she tells us.
“You want to get through it, and you want to watch every episode, but then when it’s over, that sense of purpose is gone. And we know that the definition of happiness is having meaning and purpose in our lives.”
Over the six seasons that Lost was on the air, there were 121 episodes. In old-school terms, that would take you about six years to watch. But because we now have access to OnDemand, Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu, Roku, DVDs and God knows what else, you could feasibly take down the entire series in a few weeks of five-episodes-a-night.
See how quickly that would feel like it was your purpose?
And then there are the happy-time chemicals being released in your head. “When you watch shows you enjoy, the brain releases dopamine,” Lombardo explains. “And some of it is from anticipation. Not even necessarily watching the show, but getting excited to watch it. That anticipation actually causes us to release dopamine.”
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When the show is over, when its death knell has been rung, so is the release of that feel-good dopamine. Lombardo says it’s not a state of depression per se, more of a state of “ugh.”
The closing songs kill us. Remember hearing Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” when Walter White was dying during the final scene of Breaking Bad? It was perfect.
Same with Creed Bratton’s “All the Faces,” which bid adieu to The Office after nine genius years.
Same with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which took Hank Moody down memory lane in the very last Californication.
Memory and melody go hand in hand, so expect to never feel the same about those songs again.
“It make sense that you go through almost a mourning period when your show is over,” Lombardo says. And then, when the time is right, find another show and start the whole process again.
That Louis CK quote about how everything that makes you happy will eventually end? He was talking about pets. Which is basically the same thing as bingewatching.
“If you buy a puppy,” he said, “you’re bringing it home to your family, saying, ‘Hey, look, everyone, we’re all gonna cry soon. Look at what I brought home. I brought home us crying in a few years. Here we go. Countdown to sorrow with a puppy.’”
You know when you pick a show to bingewatch that it’s essentially a countdown to sorrow. But we do it anyway. Because we are human.