How to binge-watch to improve your mental health

Vegging with a bowl of popcorn and a good series - it's a 21st-century pastime that isn't going anywhere. According to a psychologist from Berkeley, California, there's a way you can transform that guilty pleasure into a positive experience that boosts your mental health.
FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, file photo, a person displays Netflix on a tablet in North Andover, Mass. With millions of subscribers still flocking to its services, Netflix no longer worries about being protected by net neutrality. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)

Let's be honest: few of us are willing to give up binge-watching. It can eat up precious time (seriously, where did the last four hours go?) but fortunately there may be a way to work it to our advantage.

Tchiki Davis is a psychologist who's interested in how we use our behaviour to manage our emotions. As someone who lives and works in Silicon Valley, it was natural for Davis to turn her attention towards our technological behaviours -- specifically, binge-watching.

Dr. Tchiki Davis

Taking the Bright Side

While doing her doctoral work in psychology at UC Berkeley, Davis studied how people respond to film clips. She found that adopting a strategy psychologists call "positive reappraisal" can make a big difference in their mental health.

Imagine a sad movie scene, anything that leaves you teary-eyed will do.

"If you try to give that character advice for how to think about the situation better, you're actually training your brain to think about your own life situations in a way that helps you feel better and think about the possible opportunities you have for growth, or the potential positive outcomes of a negative situation."

Positive reappraisal can transform your binge-watching into an opportunity to practice a skill that can benefit you in your daily life.

"It's not an easy strategy," Davis admits, "but it does work"

The Casablanca example

For an example of how to apply positive reappraisal to even the saddest of situations, look no further than the classic film, Casablanca (1942).

In the final scene, Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick, forces a final goodbye to the love of his life, Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman.

Davis says this is a great example of positive reappraisal. Although saying goodbye is difficult, Rick gives Ilsa several reasons why it's for the best. One caveat though: reappraisal is best used on yourself. Davis warns it can backfire when you apply it to others, particularly if they're just looking for someone to lend an ear.

Practice Makes Perfect

There's good news for those of us who aren't natural optimists. Davis says learning how to think positively is a skill we can acquire with practice, much like mastering a new language.

Retraining your brain to think positively might seem awkward at first -- but Davis says that will change with time.

"A lot of people's natural inclination is to view the negative potential outcomes and the negative sides of things and that's learned too; they've learned somehow throughout their life to view things that way. So trying to rewire the way your brain looks at the world is totally possible and I've been involved in lots of research that has shown that that's possible."

So the next time you're tempted to hunker down for yet another episode...or season...of your favourite Netflix show, see it as an opportunity to flex your positive emotional muscles. And remember… practice makes perfect.