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Friendship in Real Life vs. This Emotional Life

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Research has shown that people more often experience positive feelings, and less often experience negative feelings, when they are with their friends than when they are with anyone else. They are happier with friends than with a spouse or partner, a child, a relative, or a co-worker. Yet the 40 minutes on friendship in Part 1 of 'This Emotional Life' instead took us through Asperger's, loneliness, conflicts with coworkers, bullying, and suicide. That was in a program on the importance of relationships to our happiness.

Did you watch Part 1 of the PBS series, "This Emotional Life," hosted by Dan Gilbert? If you did, let me know if the segment on friendship resonated with your experiences or expertise. It surely didn't with mine.

This first 2-hour installment consisted of three segments: family, friends, and lovers. All of the segments were oddly ominous, seeming to warn us of the worst that can happen. This was especially strange in that the overarching theme was that relationships contribute most significantly to our happiness.

I do think it is important to acknowledge what can go wrong, even very wrong, in any kind of relationship. I also appreciate that we can sometimes learn to set things right by understanding what went awry. But if relationships are so wonderful, then we should see more of the joy.

In the segments on family and lovers, there was mournfulness - for example, in the stories of the child adopted from an orphanage who had such profound problems with attachment, and the couple who sniped their way through infidelity and therapy. But some genuine and touching love shined through, too.

Now consider the narrative themes in the segment on friendship. There was the story of the man with Asperger's, for whom human connection was a daunting challenge. There was a discussion of loneliness, and how it can be worse for your health than smoking. There was a story about people who worked together as aerialists or musicians and the conflicts they had to face and work through in order to sustain the quality of their art as well as their friendships. Somewhere along the way was the quote, "Everyone's nice until you get to know them." Then, after Asperger's, loneliness, and conflicted co-workers, this segment that was supposedly about friendship drew to a close with a story about bullying that ended with the bullied child's hanging. Hey, no wonder friendships are linked to happiness!

In the segments on family and lovers, we were offered some insights into what might make those relationships so powerful. Not so for the part about friends.

The closest the friendship segment came to a depiction of ordinary friendship was in the stories of the people who worked together. Workplace friendships are important, but holding them up as the sole positive illustrations of friendship is misleading. By embedding friendship in an instrumental context, Gilbert missed one of the true joys and distinctive characteristics of friendship: (continue reading here).