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

The positive psychology movement has spurred multiple lines of research devoted to studying how close relationships are beneficial to people’s lives. These relationships seem to provide psychological nourishment, giving people motivation and confidence to branch out, take risks, and live a more optimal life. Some popular sitcoms are used to demonstrate the overlap between dynamics of careers and social bonds, illustrating how relationships and work are not separate, but intertwined.

As noted by distinguished theorists (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), the field of psychology has tended to focus its attention on the grim and painful aspects of life (such as mental disorders, terror management, and prejudice), and how to repair or diminish them. Although these are very important topics for scientific study, some psychologists have argued that this research focus is too narrow, almost exclusively centered on human suffering. Popular media often reiterates this spotlight on negative aspects of human mentality and behavior, with TV shows like In Treatment, Lost, and CSI. In pop culture, psychology is most often synonymous with pain and adversity.

Positive psychology (Keyes & Haidt, 2003; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) offers another perspective, which is the study of life’s brighter side. Positive psychology focuses on pleasant and desirable emotions (happiness), social bonding (love), growth (exploration) and optimal functioning (achievement). In particular, positive psychology provides an important contribution to the scientific study of close relationships. Such research focuses on how friendships, romantic bonds, and social networks fulfill basic human needs (similar to the need for food & water), offer comfort and security, and assist in growth and development. Relationships are a great source of happiness and well-being, and offer a psychological “boost” which helps people live bigger and richer lives than they otherwise would alone.

Some notable and popular television shows depict these beneficial aspects of relationships, and examples from three sitcoms will be used to highlight the psychological concepts discussed throughout the article. That 70s Show portrays a band of teenagers living in Wisconsin in the late 1970s. Entourage portrays L.A. life for a movie star and his all-male friends, highlighting the career and personal life of a fictional celebrity, Vincent Chase. How I Met Your Mother portrays a group of 20-something New Yorkers, who journey through their careers and relationships together. Across these different settings and demographics, the characters provide support, feel deep affection for each other, and help each other flourish. They are a pop culture embodiment of positive psychology.

Self-Determination Theory

Motivation and goal-striving are important factors that drive people to live successful and fulfilling lives. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan & Deci, 2000), motivation and goal-striving are tied to three specific innate psychological needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy. Relatedness refers to the state of being connected to others (family, friends, partners, etc.), competence refers to the state of being effective and capable, and autonomy refers to feeling in control over actions and outcomes.

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