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

These needs are the psychological equivalent of physical survival needs (water, sleep, shelter). Put another way, they are like psychological “food,” and when they are properly satisfied, people can function at an optimal level. Optimal functioning is indicated by interest/engagement, effort in one’s pursuits, creativity, mastering skills, achieving goals, and an overall feeling of psychological health and well-being. In contrast, when these needs are not met, people feel apathetic and passive, which can have deleterious effects on performance in a variety of domains.

What some psychologists call the need for relatedness, others may label the need for social connection (Andersen, Chen, & Carter, 2000), secure relatedness (Ryan & La Guardia, 2000), the need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), or the need to form attachment bonds (Bowlby, 1969/1982). They refer to the same notion that humans are essentially social creatures, and that close bonds (especially with friends & family) are a psychological necessity. Almost all television sitcoms revolve around the relationships between friends and lovers. Eric’s life-long friendship and adolescent romance with Donna is in the spotlight for nearly the entire plot of That 70s Show. While the show contains a variety of details (e.g. music and culture from the 1970s), its central focus is the love that these two characters share. How I Met Your Mother showcases the importance of relatedness/belonging with a different twist; centering on Ted’s journey to find “the one” (his soul mate and life partner) that he will end up with, as his wife and mother of his future children. Along the way, there is much attention given to Ted’s best friend Marshall and his wife Lily, who manifest Ted’s ideal relationship that he hopes to have in the future. In each of these sitcoms, the emphasis on close relationships is clear: they are the most important facets of the characters’ lives.

Relationships and social networks are also a strong predictor of psychological health and well-being. The more (and better quality) friendships people have, the happier they feel, and the more satisfied they are with their lives (Diener & Seligman, 2002). A diary study showed that on any given day, people who had engaged in meaningful social interactions (e.g., hanging out with friends, meaningful conversations, doing fun activities) felt happier and more spirited than those without such interactions (Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000). Notably, there is a weaker association between financial wealth and psychological well-being. This suggests that although basic physical needs (food, shelter) must be met, excess money really can’t buy happiness (see Myers, 2000). As an example of this, in Entourage, at the height of Vince’s career, he found himself alone on a few occasions lamenting having all the money/toys in the world but no one to “play with.” Being alone in a luxurious mansion was not enough to satisfy ones’ psychological needs.

Competence is similar to elf-efficacy, which is a person’s sense of their own abilities in a given situation or task (Bandura, 1977; 1996). When people feel competent, they perform well, and close relationships can greatly facilitate this feeling of capability. People who form secure attachments to others (Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007) are comfortable becoming close to their partners and friends, and relying on them for support. Those who are securely attached in their relationships do not avoid intimacy, but embrace it. This comfort in close relationships gives them confidence to grow and explore their environment. In other words, having greater security in the support of friends and partners leads to more positive engagement with the world, and a more successful life.

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