It seems there’s never a shortage of things to feel bad about: The year has so far brought us skyrocketing inflation, a brutal war in Europe, relentless gun violence and the Jan. 6 hearings. And while podcasts can be a valuable way to delve deeper into the headlines, they can also provide escapism if all you really want to do is switch off.
These six long-running shows are all wholesome and uplifting to varying degrees, and feature affable hosts who start to feel like friends the more you listen. They’re also decidedly not news focused, ranging from satire to movie analysis to deliberately banal gossip.
If you’ve ever found yourself going down a Yelp rabbit hole, you know that the world of online customer reviews can get very strange, very quickly. In this hilarious comedy show, the siblings Christine and Alex Schiefer deliver dramatic readings of the internet’s worst and weirdest reviews, scored by fittingly somber music. As you’ll gather from the title, many of the featured reviews are from self-important nit-pickers, whose complaints are deservedly torn to shreds by the weary hosts. Others get surreal — one episode features a nail salon owner who responds to negative customer feedback with sequences of emojis so bizarre and elaborate that they border on sinister. As strange as the content gets, what makes the show so endearing is the Schiefers’ rapport, their palpable bewilderment at the opinions expressed, and their compassion for the service workers forced to deal with belligerent customers.
Starter episode: “The Worst of Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet”
Despite being raised to view gossip as sinful, the writer Kelsey McKinney mounted an impassioned defense of gossip in a guest essay for The New York Times last year. Six months later, she and Alex Sujong Laughlin, a producer, debuted a podcast that is essentially a love letter to its joys, delivering stories each week about minor drama among people you’ve never met. Each episode sees McKinney (now a self-described “insufferable gossip”) calling up a guest, who spills the tea about a scandal in a neighborhood knitting circle, or a bachelorette party gone awry, or the yearslong psychological warfare among a group of former sorority sisters. The low stakes are part of what makes “Normal Gossip” work — each yarn is as inconsequential as it is juicy, a pleasure as fleeting as cotton candy.
Starter episode: “Gossiptonin with Virgie Tovar”
This is not your standard-issue movie review podcast — instead, as the official tagline goes, it’s “a feelings podcast” that happens to be about movies. The journalist Sarah Marshall is the co-creator and host of the hit podcast “You’re Wrong About,” where she’s become known for re-examining maligned and misunderstood cultural figures (most of them women) with striking compassion. In “You Are Good,” she and her co-host, Alex Steed, take a similarly empathetic approach to cinema, exploring movies like “Heathers,” “Titanic” and “A Star Is Born” (the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga version) through the lens of the emotions they provoke. The show originally focused on father figures in film (under the title “Why Are Dads”), but has since broadened its ambitions, and the conversations among Marshall, Steed and their guests strike a warm, charmingly rambling tone that feels both cozy and insightful.
Starter episode: “Little Women (1994) w. Jamie Loftus”
Practicing gratitude has been shown to improve mental health, sleep quality and resilience, and if you’re seeking inspiration, this show is essentially a gratitude journal in audio form. In each episode of “Wonderful!,” the husband-and-wife team of Griffin and Rachel McElroy talk about the things that are currently making them happy, however big or small — snacks, fictional characters, poetry. They also read out letters from listeners who share their own “small wonders” from daily life. The premise may sound corny, but there’s an atmosphere of genuine enthusiasm and kindness here that will charm even the most cynical of listeners.
Starter episode: “Half Past Puffs Time”
When the world feels overwhelming, focusing on small details can be a helpful grounding exercise. This whimsical, learning-focused comedy podcast is so soothing in part because it invites listeners to slow down and take a second look at things they take for granted. Each week, the four-time “Jeopardy!” champion Alex Schmidt is joined by one or more fellow writer-comedians, who help him dive into the unexpectedly rich stories behind seemingly mundane things like doorknobs, beans or the letter X. Though it may be tempting to skip episodes that sound boring, part of the fun of “Secretly Incredibly Fascinating” is letting yourself be surprised by what you find interesting.
Starter episode: “Blood Types”
Karen Kilgariff, a writer and comedian, is best known to podcast fans as half of the duo behind “My Favorite Murder.” But several years before the launch of that true-crime juggernaut, Kilgariff began hosting the chat show “Do You Need a Ride?” alongside Chris Fairbanks, an actor and comedian. The original format of the show had Kilgariff and Fairbanks interviewing their guests as they drove them to or from the airport, multitasking their way through Los Angeles traffic in “an ’08 Honda Accord mobile sound studio.” Though the pandemic has curtailed the car rides, “Do You Need a Ride?” remains as entertaining as ever — Kilgariff’s effortless back-and-forth with Fairbanks is half the appeal, and their guest-free episodes are often gems.
Starter episode: “Tig Notaro”