The psychology of Netflix: what your viewing habits really say about your lockdown mood

Posted by for Life

It seems our Netflix choices paint a very interesting picture of our emotional states right now… 

To Netflix, or not to Netflix? Nowadays, it’s not even a question: the streaming platform has, without a doubt, become our most faithful companion during the coronavirus lockdown.

When we’ve found ourselves staring out the window wistfully, Netflix has coaxed us back into quarantine with its plethora of film and TV offerings. When we’ve needed some culinary inspiration, it’s come up trumps with a whole host of cooking shows. And it’s connected us with the outside world, too: all you need do is look at the Twitter chat around Tiger King and Dangerous Lies for proof of that.

More important than all of this, though? The fact that Netflix continues to serve as a microcosm for society’s moods as a whole. Indeed, all you need do is examine the most popular movies on the streaming platform right now to get some kind of an idea as to how people are coping in lockdown.

Ah fine, you got us: a cursory glance at the list won’t help you determine anything about the state of the nation. Netflix’s trending films seem too at odds, too wildly different, to suggest any sort of pattern. But, when you take the “change model” into account…

Well, things get really bloody interesting.

“The change model is built off of the bones of the ‘five stages of grief’ model,” psychologist Hope Bastine recently explained to Stylist

So, if Netflix were the window to your soul, what would it tell us about how you’re feeling right now? Are you stressed, in denial about being stuck indoors, or content with your new life?

Well, we’ve painstakingly matched the platform’s trending movies with the stages of the so-called coronavirus curve, just to help you figure things out.

Shock: Contagion (and other pandemic-themed horrors)

Contagion – as in, yeah, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon and Jude Law about a deadly virus – famously jumped from the 270th most popular film in the Warner Bros video-on-demand catalogue to the 2nd in the initial weeks of the coronavirus outbreak. 

It is, even now, one of Netflix’s most-streamed movies, alongside fellow pandemic-themed horror Outbreak. Why? Because films such as these offer us a means of coming to terms with the shock of our situation.

“There’s something about human nature where we get ‘hooked’ by unusual or extreme events,” Dr Elena Touroni, psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, previously told Stylist

“Anxiety and excitement can easily get confused and interlinked,” she said. “So we might end up finding excitement in something that is very anxiety-provoking.”

Denial: The Breakfast Club (aka classic films and comforting TV shows)

Judging by Netflix’s most-watched list, many of us who find ourselves unable to accept the Covid-19 situation are living the same day over and over again in Love Wedding Repeat and Groundhog Day, binge-watching 80s classics (hello, The Breakfast Club!) and seeking solace in our favourite TV shows, too.

Netflix's Love Wedding Repeat
A still from Netflix's Love Wedding Repeat.

The reason for this, as outlined by licensed psychologist Krystine Batcho, is simple enough: familiarity is comforting – and helps us to switch off from our anxieties, at least for a little while.

“When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting. It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled,” Batcho says.

“It’s harkening back to what we might, even erroneously, perceive as a simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities and obligations and fewer worries.”

Anger and blame: Gone Girl (and other revenge fantasies)

Whether it’s I, Tonya, A Simple Favour, or Gone Girl, there’s something very cathartic about a revenge fantasy. Especially when you’re processing a lot of anger yourself. 

Indeed, by engaging with someone like Rosamund Pyke’s Amy Dunne through the television screen, you are able to process her emotions and blow off some steam. 

And you’re able to do it without having to go through the pain of… well, of doing something crazy and hateful yourself.

Bargaining and self-blame: Eat Pray Love (and other reflective dramas)

Eat Pray Love encourages us to question who we are, what we want, where we’re going. Trainwreck, likewise, demands that we take a closer look at ourselves and determine whether we’re happy with the way our life is going. And He’s Just Not That Into You, which has become suddenly popular all over again, reminds us that “we’re all encouraged, no, programmed to believe that if a guy acts like a total jerk that means he likes you.” 

Which, based on conversations I’ve had with friends about their recent spate of Zoom dates, feels like an absolute mood.

Essentially, we’re all feeling overwhelmed and keen to find some reason as to why. Rather than focus on the external, we’re turning our attention inwards. We’re trying to regain some sense of control. 

And we’re all trying to shift that sense of pointlessness, in a bid to make ourselves feel better.

Depression and confusion: The Terminal / Girl, Interrupted

Feeling trapped? Yeah, we figured as much: there’s a reason the likes of Tom Hanks’ The Terminal – which tells the story of a man forced to live in an airport for nine months – and Winona Ryder’s Girl, Interrupted – all about a woman’s involuntary stay at a mental institution – are trending right now.

Like the leads of these films, we’re feeling lost. Our days are darkened by an overwhelming sense of anxiety and dread, and we’re finding it increasingly difficult to find the silver lining anywhere.

However, as Touroni told Stylist, there’s a positive side to this state of change. “Depression… causes us to bed down and reflect, to quietly evaluate and assess, in order to heal and restore,” she says – and that’s very much the theme of The Terminal and Girl, Interrupted

Yes, their characters are unhappily stuck in limbo. But, when they open themselves up to their experiences, they find themselves making progress and moving forward. That’s what we all want right now.

Acceptance: Sense & Sensibility

Think about it: is there any story that more accurately sums up our lockdown lifestyles than that of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility? The Dashwood family is forced to depart the hustle and bustle of society, giving up their lifestyle in favour of a much quieter, homelier one. They sit indoors. They enjoy quiet conversations. They go for long, bracing walks. They bake, they sew, they sing. 

Emma Thomspon and Kate Winslet in Sense & Sensibility
Emma Thomspon and Kate Winslet in Sense & Sensibility

Elinor (Emma Thompson) is a shining inspiration of a good Covid-19 citizen. Marianne (Kate Winslet) is less enthralled with her new life, but, when she breaks “isolation” and is struck down by an illness, she learns to accept her new lifestyle.

Sound familiar?

Problem-solving: Julie & Julia (plus all the cooking shows, home makeover series’ and documentaries)

As Touroni told Stylist: “The seventh stage is all about growth, and learning to live a more authentic life.”

We can see that all around us as people attempt to use this time of quarantine as a means of learning new skills: they’re baking banana bread, they’re following Joe Wicks’ exercise programme, they’re taking time to improve their homes, and they’re learning to appreciate the little things in life.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many cooking shows, home makeover series’, and documentaries are trending on Netflix? We’re all seeking inspiration, after all, and we’re all keen to learn new skills.

Likewise, it makes sense that Julie & Julia is right up there in our trending movies, too. Not just because Meryl Streep’s Julia Chiles is teaching us how to debone fish and the like, but because Amy Adams’ character – like so many of us right now – is on a personal quest of self-betterment.

Don’t believe me? Well, at the beginning of the movie, Julie makes it her mission to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the space of 12 months, writing a blog to motivate herself and document her progress. If the film had been made now, she’d obviously have ditched the blog for Instagram Stories, but the message would be the same: find something you love, something that pushes your boundaries and challenges you, and do it. Do it now.

Why? Well, as Covid-19 has taught us, because life is short. Because the world is large. Because it’s up to us to make the most of our time here. Because… we owe it to ourselves to be happy.

That’s why.

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To find out more about the coronavirus curve, visit our article on the subject here

Images: Getty/Netflix

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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