TV

25 years later, Friends has a new role in people's lives: as a sleeping aid

Having become a ubiquitous part of people's lives, and thanks to its arrival on Netflix, Friends has become more than just a beloved sitcom: it's a vital sleeping aid for people who grew up on it. Sarah Manavis speaks to the people who, 25 years later, use the show to fall asleep every night.

It’s not unusual for people’s bedtime regimes to involve some background noise to help them fall asleep. For some people that might be an audiobook, for some it might be podcasts, for some heathens it might be nothing at all. But for the many people who put on Netflix or a TV show to fall asleep, a huge amount are listening to the same thing: Friends.

The episodic comedy, which premiered 25 years ago this Sunday, still manages to make nearly every snooze-friendly recommendation list on the internet and, even 15 years after its last episode aired, is a stalwart of millennial bedtime routines. But what is it about this formulaic, long-gone comedy that makes it so dream-inducing? And what about Friends has eager sleepers constantly coming back to watch it? The answer lies in a potent cocktail of calming elements that make for ideal pass-out viewing.

“Sitcoms are particularly good for helping people wind down their minds and relax because they tend to use the same narrative formula for every episode,” Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and professor at West Virginia University, explains. “Viewers know what to expect… they are familiar with the cadence. And when there's a laugh track which alerts audiences when something funny happens, all the better! Viewers don't even have to put in any cognitive effort to identify the jokes.”

Elizabeth says that Friends' ubiquity on our screens, even years after its end, also plays a crucial part in soothing viewers. “Reruns help us relax because they require less cognitive effort,” she says. “When we're already familiar with the plots and characters, our brains don't have to work as hard to keep up with the narrative. We don't have to stay on our toes for unexpected plot points. There's a lot of comfort in predictability and it makes for good bedtime watching.”

But plenty of sitcoms are formulaic and endlessly shown on Channel 4. One of the key elements that sets Friends apart from other shows available to stream is the heavy shot of nostalgia that comes with it. Elizabeth explains that nostalgia gives viewers a warm, soothed feeling that, coupled with the easygoing nature of a network sitcom, gives viewers an extra hit of bittersweet dopamine. Friends’ long run means that unfathomable numbers of people were able to watch it while it was still on-air – leaving an enormous number of people ripe for nostalgic feelings today.

When speaking to obsessive bedtime Friends-watchers about why they can’t stop watching it, nostalgia is one of the most common things to come up. “Friends was something that was always on in the background growing up,” says Domenica, a 20-year-old student from Norfolk. She tells me that she watched Friends throughout the entirety of her childhood. “My sister and mum loved it,” she says, “I can’t really pinpoint a time that I wasn’t aware of its existence."

“I started watching Friends when I was around 7ish,” says Jasmine, a 26-year-old consultant in Milton Keynes. “I remember watching it on Friday evenings on TV and have a vivid memory of watching the last ever episode! I genuinely can't remember a week in my life when I haven't watched at least one episode of Friends.”

Jasmine also tells me that Friends helps her get to sleep when she’s particularly lonely – the nostalgia, she says, is a godsend in isolating situations. “When I was going to uni, in my first few weeks in halls with new people, a new room, new sights and smells, the old familiar theme tune and canned laughter made me feel less alone,” she says. “It reminded me of watching it with my mum and brother while eating dinner or snuggling up on a sick day off school in bed.”

But beyond the pure nostalgia of rewatching a beloved show, one of the biggest draws of watching Friends before bed is the characters themselves. Of the 30 people I spoke to who say they watch Friends almost every night, nearly all noted that the pseudo-family and their relationships with each other was what made them feel the most comforted.

“People regularly form parasocial relationships with fictional characters they are regularly exposed to,” Cohen says (a parasocial relationship being an illusion of intimacy with a media character). “Over time people can feel like they know a character as well – sometimes even better – than the friends and acquaintances they keep in real life.”

Cohen notes that this viewer-to-character connection is also strengthened by Friends’ mammoth 10-year run. “It’s a long, long time for viewers to get to know Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe and Chandler!” she says. “It makes them feel like they are in the company of friends. And that's comforting.”

For many people, Friends simply lulls them to sleep; they put it on, watch two episodes, and they’re out. But for some people, Friends does something extra – many believe it’s one of the few shows that can quiet the anxieties that interfere with their sleep.

“My ongoing anxiety can really show up at night,” Dan (a pseudonym) tells me. He’s been watching Friends since he was a kid and now watches it near-nightly to calm his nerves. “I find it hits that sweet spot of making me not think and stress about stuff I have to do the next day or problems in my life, but also not being too engaging that I’m concentrating and listening to every word which will keep me up too.”

“I have an anxiety disorder and ADHD,” 22-year-old writer Sanjana says. “When I try to read a new book or watch a new show, it’s too stimulating and I can’t get to bed or it makes me start thinking about my own life, whatever I’ve got to do the next day or the week ahead, what I should have said earlier that day in a conversation or at work or whatever, and it just kind of leads to a spiral.”

Friends is stimulating enough that my mind doesn’t wander and think about other stuff,” she says, “but it’s also not interesting enough for me to pay proper attention.”

The reasons people watch Friends can, ultimately, be wide-ranging: some watch it for nostalgia, some for familiarity, and some for the guaranteed regularity of a laugh track. But in the end, people are looking for something comforting – and Friends fits the bill perfectly.

Friends means I can switch off my daily life,” Jasmine says, “and be lulled to sleep by characters that have been in my life longer than most of my actual friends.”

Now read

The business of sleep

Male ‘skinfluencers’ are making bank recommending you moisturisers

These women are using Tinder to build their Instagram followings

GQ Recommends

Cars

The new Lexus LF-30 electric concept is so futuristic it looks like it might gain sentience

Culture

Hannah Gadsby's song of the self

Culture

The very best Netflix watches in October (goodbye, social life)

Edition