Comfort culture and the relief of the familiar

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Why do some people refuse to read the same book twice, when others return to old favorites time and time again? And why do some aspects of art, music, film, literature or TV provide everlasting solace while others fade into the background no matter how groundbreaking? Here writer Diyora Shadijanova explores “comfort culture” and why some of us consume the same paintings, TV shows and books time and time again.

Illustrations by Laura Callaghan.

When some people can’t fall asleep after a big night out, they may dab lavender oil on their silk-covered pillow, or put on a hypnotizing guided meditation. But the only thing that sends me to sleep is watching reruns of the second season of “Gossip Girl.” 

It’s a bizarre ritual, and it works every time. I’ll get into my silent flat after having chewed my Uber driver’s ear off for 20 minutes, walk into my bedroom, put my hair up in a bun, and take my make-up off. To drown out the violent club noises still rattling in the washing machine that is my head, I’ll get into bed and watch Blair Waldorf bully Jenny Humphrey on the steps of the Met. Before I know it, I’m curled up in a fetal position. The laptop mirrors me, lying slightly overheated on its side, playing “Gossip Girl” until its battery runs flat. 

They say being around someone you love can make you sleepy because you feel safe. So perhaps my “someone” is a late-noughties series about teen socialites obsessed with power play.

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The noughties may have been a very politically incorrect time, but back then, I do remember feeling a semblance of hope for the future.”

I’ve recently been wondering why some TV shows, films, books or songs provide everlasting solace, while others fade into the background. What are the main characteristics of such comfort culture? And most importantly, what does the consumption of this type of content tell us about ourselves?

I’m not the first or last person to turn to culture for comfort. In my previous houseshare, Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” echoed through the walls until the song blurred into one familiar sound. I know of friends currently leafing through “1984” and “Brave New World”—texts they’ve read so many times they could recite them line by line—to try to make sense of the current political moment. Old “Love Island” clips resurface on my TikTok feed, with commenters writing below that they’re rewatching a particular “iconic” season.

There is also the inimitable feeling that comes from luxuriating in the familiar. Leafing through heavily annotated passages in books, or returning to a favorite poem, we’re reminded that the beautiful can be just as comforting as the wise, scandalous or poignant. You may revisit a painting in a gallery’s permanent collection and find that each time you see it, it appears softer around the edges—kinder, more closely acquainted. I often return to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “The Windows” to get a hit of such a feeling. Reading it, I imagine her watching someone’s life through a series of windows in a partially converted Victorian house. She writes: 

How do you earn a life going on

behind yellow windows, writing at night

the Latin names of plants for a garden,

opening the front door to a wet dog?

Those who love you, forgive you, clearly,

with steaming casseroles and red wine.

There have been many times when I have walked past similar windows; I’ve seen families laugh and debate over dinner, and old couples reading in sitting rooms, surrounded by oil paintings of their ancestors. Experiencing Duffy’s world through her poetry makes my own window-watching feel less weird. Or as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt put it: “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”

What people find comforting on an individual level is, of course, subject to a variety of factors. Stories with happy endings, music written in major keys, or artworks projecting harmony or positivity seem like obvious choices. One only has to look at adult Disney or Harry Potter devotees to see the everlasting marks childhood stories can leave on someone’s life: entire theme parks have been constructed to keep these dreams alive. There’s also the proven comfort in humor, so it’s hardly surprising that “The Office,” “Friends” and “Parks and Recreation” repeatedly rank among the most-watched shows on streaming platforms, despite a conveyor belt of fresh releases.

Mainstream comfort rituals have developed on a collective level, too. Imagine a festive winter period in the UK. Shop floors rotate the same “NOW That’s What I Call Music! Christmas Classics” album to inject everyone with enough merriness to buy stuff. “Love Actually” is a Boxing Day classic. Carol singers harmonize hymns that have been around for centuries. It doesn’t matter how repetitive or outdated some of these cultural relics become, as long as they continue to provide ambiguous comfort to the masses.

It seems to me that the consumption of culture is an attempt to capture an absent or lost feeling. This may explain why some are also drawn to the melancholic as a grounding exercise. On cold winter nights, I often return to Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk”—a strange and sad novel set in Greece—for the sensory illusion that I’m on holiday with the protagonist.

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You don’t need to be a behavioral scientist to work out that when the ground feels shaky and unpredictable, there is a desire for stability or repetition.”

There is also Kate Bush’s 2005 double album “Aerial,” a critically acclaimed artifact that features elements of folk, reggae, classical, flamenco and rock that I have looped too many times to count. The second disc, “A Sky of Honey,” condenses the adventures of a summer’s day into 42 minutes. It begins with morning birdsong, gentle piano and Bush’s son saying, “Mummy, Daddy, the day is full of birds,” and builds to Bush’s hysterical laughter set to heavy rock music. When everything stops, the birds can be heard again. 

I first listened to “Aerial” at the age of 10. My mother’s work friend had gifted her the CD, but she couldn’t understand the music so ended up passing it on to me. I didn’t speak English then, but I was mesmerized by the range of sounds and eclectic tonal arrangements. It mostly made me think of life in nature—foraging in the woods, wildflowers, birdsong, sun on my skin. When I play it back today, I want to escape to the world I dreamed up for myself all those years ago.

“What we see in the past, real or imagined, is often revealing about what we’re missing in the present,” James Greig wrote of seeking nostalgia during turbulent periods, and I tend to agree with this view. To me, comfort culture is the act of chasing shadows that bring a familiar sense of relief. When I watch “Gossip Girl,” I’m pacified by the fact this show has been in my life for over a decade. I have nothing in common with the nepotism babies on screen, but watching this stupid show takes me back to paying £1.89 per iTunes episode to upload to my silver iPod Classic. I am transformed into my 13-year-old self, transported to a time when I wasn’t worried about the multitude of global crises making life miserable for most people on this planet.

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Comfort culture is the act of chasing shadows that bring a familiar sense of relief.”

We are living in uncertain times. Authoritarianism is on the rise in many parts of the world, recession fears loom, and wars rage on. We can’t stop shitting plastic and polluting our surroundings, and are hurtling toward Earth’s sixth mass extinction event. You don’t need to be a behavioral scientist to work out that when the ground feels shaky and unpredictable, there is a desire for stability or repetition. It’s possibly why so many people took up daily walking or running during the first wave of pandemic lockdowns. Plus, there’s the escapism aspect: the noughties may have been a very politically incorrect time, but back then, I do remember feeling a semblance of hope for the future. Today, thinking about the next decade gives me cold sweats.

A popular saying goes, “Life is hard and then you die.” Though it’s difficult to argue with this truism, I’d say life is made a lot easier by fleeting moments of certainty and comfort. For some people, this feeling is attained by knowing how the movie ends—every single time.

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