Positive Psychology and the Importance of Close Relationships in TV Sitcoms: That 70s Show, Entourage, and How I Met Your Mother

Autonomy

Autonomy stems from a person’s feeling of control over their actions, and is synonymous with independence. When people feel autonomous, they feel in control of their actions and outcomes. The need for autonomy feeds directly into the feeling of vitality and psychological well-being. People need to feel “in charge” of their own lives, because this provides the motivation to take chances, work hard and prosper. Research has shown that when people are free to choose how they solve problems on a cognitive task, they feel greater vitality than if they are given specific directions on how to solve the same problems, regardless of their success (Nix, Ryan, Manly, & Deci, 1999).

It may seem as though being too closely connected to others can interfere with one’s sense of personal control and responsibility. However, psychological research has shown that close relationships are very beneficial not only in boosting people’s competence but their autonomy as well. It would be maladaptive to resist closeness and dependency in relationships, given their positive potential for assistance, guidance, and support. Surprisingly, when people accept the fact that they are dependent on others, they actually feel more autonomous and independent. Psychologists refer to this as the dependency paradox (Feeney, 2007). Research has shown that the degree to which people accept dependence on close others for support, they engage in more independent exploration and achieve more goals on their own (Feeney, 2007).

On How I Met Your Mother, Robin is a job-focused woman who tends to resist closeness and intimacy out of fear that she will lose autonomy and her career will falter. Throughout the series, she accepts job offers all over the globe in pursuit of success, leaving her friends and home behind. However, none of those paths seem fulfilling to her, and as she lets herself grow more intimate with others, she begins to see the value of close relationships and how they allow her to flourish in her career. Robin ultimately chooses to remain in New York with her close friends and boyfriend, viewing them as her source of inspiration.

When close friends equally support each other’s independence, they display mutuality of autonomy support. Research has shown that mutuality of autonomy support is good for relationships. Having autonomy support from friends is associated with higher friendship quality/satisfaction and higher general psychological well-being (Deci, La Guardia, Moller, Scheiner, & Ryan, 2006). When relationships are successful in terms providing warmth and support, this helps increase individuals’ feelings of self-efficacy and competence (La Guardia, Ryan, Couchamn, & Deci, 2000).

The characters in Entourage displayed this mechanism, when Vince achieved the peak of his career and there was no longer such great need to have Turtle and Eric close at hand. They both felt compelled to venture out and work towards living their own optimal lives. Turtle wanted to start his own business, and Eric wanted to work toward a promising career as a talent manager and start a family. Neither Turtle nor Eric was content to ride Vince’s coattails; they each wanted an independent life of their own, while maintaining their close friendships. Vince supported their aspirations for autonomy, recognizing how this would help them achieve their personal life goals.

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