Becky Clayton
By on June 27, 2014 in Life
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I’ll be there for you (when the rain starts to pour)

For as long as Time, philosophers have sought the answer to the question of what makes a good life? Health, wealth and a good education are all deemed important, but can they be depended on? When the chips are down, what can guarantee human happiness? For the Nobel Prize winning behavioural psychologist Danny Kahneman the answer is simple: friendship.

There may be no surprises here. Friendships improve our health, our sense of well-being and our confidence; friends can offer advice and support when work is stressful or when our relationships are in crisis; and true friends don’t desert us when our bank accounts or wallets are empty. It can certainly pay to have friends.

However, to say friendship costs us nothing is not strictly true. Many of us know what it is to be burnt by a so-called friend: taken advantage of or bored to death with talk only about themselves, have had a confidence betrayed or made to feel as though you’re the only one to have ever had a wart or relationship crisis. We might be seen as a poor stray they’ve taken pity on, introducing us into the best circles, but essentially we all know we’re there to make them look good and are painfully aware that we’re failing. We often refer to these people – acquaintances we feel compelled to socialise with – as ‘frenemies.’ We smile at each other when we meet, politely make that obligatory date for coffee and perhaps even think we’re looking forward to it, but inevitably come away with the feeling that we’d be better off not hearing their advice on our love life or their latest views on how to save the nation/economy/panda, and vow to ourselves never to do it again. Not, that is, until the next time we get cornered and find ourselves smiling politely.

Then again, there are times when, faced with the task of moving to a new company or country, we haven’t the liberty of choice and must start from scratch, walk the minefield and it is then we find ourselves asking what it is that makes a good friend.

Having moved back and forth between the UK and Hong Kong more times than I care to number, my best friends are not – if they ever were – all in one place. Accumulated over the years from various schools, universities, jobs and neighbourhoods, my best friends do not know each other and are unlikely ever to meet – that is, not unless I get married to someone rich enough to pay all their airfares for the wedding! And explaining what is so special about them to other people can be hard. How on earth do you sum up a friendship with someone? It would take all the years I’ve known them to explain – and even then you might not get it. And what if one of your best friends, siblings or partners didn’t get why that person made such a fantastic friend? Unthinkable… your greatest fear and dread, only topped by the even greater fear that they will like them more than you, and then where would you be?

Personally, I tend to risk it, pretty sure that all my real, good, honest friends will see precisely what there is to love, honour and cherish in each other, and if they don’t? That they will be polite enough to pretend for my sake. But, really, the reason why I would feel quite confident at bringing my weird and wonderfully unique and eclectic array of friends together is that, for all their far flung differences, they have one thing in common. When I look around at all the friends I’ve had, all the best friends I’ve known, their one common, defining feature is humour, as in GSO. I mean, come on, they’d have to have one to put up with me!

But is it just me? Wondering about this question I inevitably turned to my best friend and the best authority on friendship I know, Mariko, for her take on the enduring appeal of Friends, and yes, as in the TV show. Why not? It’s been one of her best friends all these many years.

When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month…

Mariko: Alas it is true. My love for Friends is almost as big as my love for my friends, and certainly as enduring. And when Becky asked me whether I think humour is key to friendship, I found myself waving my arms at the Skype screen yelling, “Yes, like the one where…” For in the friendship of six neurotic twenty-somethings who share a decade together in Greenwich Village, New York, we see how great a bond humour can weave. It creates a magic that makes the group stronger than the sum of the individuals – and to the viewers, it looks enticingly achievable.

Of course, Friends is not an exact reflection of life as young people living in a megacity, with much-cited distortions such as the characters’ endless capacity to look gorgeous and sit around drinking coffee waiting for a happy ending, being necessary features of a light entertainment show. Nevertheless, Friends is an intuitively knowing portrait of how friendship works among people who are caught between everything in life – between childhood and adulthood, between counting pennies and a savings scheme, between dating and marriage proposals, and between not knowing what the hell to do with your life and starting to have a little inkling. And the key to this kind of friendship is the trust you have that the others are in the same boat, and that they can laugh at themselves, at you, at the situation, then shake it off, and just bumble on.

The many superfluous set pieces aside, there are some sensitive moments in Friends where this mix of humour, support and empathy is the best cure for growing pains. The one where Chandler comforts Rachel when she’s struggling with her parents’ divorce by laughing at his own experience, the one where the six of them fall out over differences in spending power but come together when Monica loses her job, the one where Ross tells Joey to go for it with his ex-girlfriend Rachel, the one where Joey is there to give Phoebe a hug after she says good bye to the one guy she thought she could end up with forever. In these situations, friends and humour are often the two things that give you solace, distance and distraction from the problem – the two together are a powerful aid – and dare I say, panacea.

Crucially, we see that the role of a friend is not to give answers and solutions. Advice, yes, but if your friend is honest, her mind is probably already made up on what she is going to do and merely wants your reassurance that the decision is right. This is certainly an important job for a friend – to confirm your best, wisest suspicions and gently steer you away from your worst. But more than this, a friend is someone who tries to make you see it’s not as bad as all that, and even if it is, well, what can you do? And humour is the best way to do that, to shake you out of the misery coma and help you think more clearly.

Inevitably, the humour can sometimes end up being a little too harsh to take. In Friends, the characters have a laugh too many about Ross’ divorces, Joey’s lack of acting talent, Monica’s miserable stint working at a diner wearing fake boobs, Chandler’s self-entrapment in a tedious job he meant to leave years ago. Even if you, as the wounded, can’t join in the laughter, you know that after the laughter stops your genuine friends will still stick around to listen, buy you a beer and pick up the pieces. Then you bumble on, together again.

And this is the key thing about the friendship in Friends. It looks achievable. We move to London or Tokyo or Hong Kong and think, “I only need to find a bunch of people who are in the same situation in life, then we hang out every night, sharing thoughts and fears and laughter and tears. How hard can that be?” You recall those blissful years at nursery or university, and remember having it. Then you look around the café or bar, and spot loads of people who seem to have already found it. The idea that a group of friends is more than a sum of the parts, that there is greater magic when you’re together than when you’re on your own, it’s a prototype, an ideal, one that existed long before Friends began in 1994, but one that Friends immortalised with endearing characters and sharp writing. Thanks to this, our rose-tinted glasses are never coming off.

Nos amis, nos amigos, 我们的朋友

Hannah: I’m chiming in here as someone who’s spent enough time trying to make friends abroad in France, China and Malaysia. And I can say that the image of friends in Friends has not made the job any easier.

In fact, I believe that this rose-tinted version of friendship can be quite disheartening. Living abroad, it’s easy to slip into fantasies, playing a game of ‘What would my life be like if I were still living in X’? I have convinced myself that in winter-time it would be all walks in the countryside followed by warming up huddled around a toasty fire, surrounded by my Friends-equivalent friends. Summer would be spent with picnics and Pimm’s and strawberries…

Whilst the friendship of Friends is inviting, once you’ve moved to a new place it becomes a shimmering mirage in the distance to which you compare any and every budding friendship.

You might strike lucky, as I did in France. Or be thrown together by circumstances, as I was in China on a year abroad teaching at a school with eight other foreign teachers. Moving to Malaysia, on the other hand, has been more challenging. Trying to fit in with colleagues, getting the right balance of hanging out with the expat scene and working long hours has made making friends tougher. Not impossible, but tougher.

Throughout it all, it’s definitely humour that bonds you together – no matter where you are, those times when a friend falls over in a ridiculous way but is unharmed, or a friend gets locked in the hotel bathroom, or that crazy dance your friend did in the streets of Florence (yes, these are real-life examples, but I won’t name names) bring a smile to your lips and no doubt your best friend’s too.

Sometimes it can take a crisis, too, to realise just what you’ve got – the number of messages I received after my near-mugging recently made me feel like I belonged to my very own caring Malaysian family. You just need to recognise that the fantasy of friendship in Friends is just that – a fantasy.

Friendship: not all fun and games

Becky: In the next few days I thought a lot about the role of laughter, not only to create but also to maintain our friendships, and I thought too about the role of a friend in dispensing advice. That we turn to our friends in times of trouble was true, but was it also the case that we did not really want their advice? Did we only look for confirmation of our own thoughts and decisions, or did this not suggest a rather shallow view of friendship, one that could not brook conflict and opposition? If we were only looking in our friends for a mirror-mirror reflection of ourselves, were we not in danger of the vainest, most solipsistic of friendships? And was I daring to disagree with my own best friend whose advice I had sought in the first place?

Psychologist Danny Kahneman again: “People must have friends they can consult in a crisis, because people cannot decide to be wise, but they can trust someone.” According to Kahneman, in moments of crisis it is not you but your friends – people who know you well and you trust to speak and act in your best interests – who have a greater ability to know what is best for you. “You can’t know,” says Kahneman, “because you are with your feelings now,” but your friends are detached and can judge more clearly how you will are likely to feel a year from now. Will you regret giving up that job, dumping the boyfriend or spending all your savings on a flash new car or Mediterranean cruise? While you are too emotionally involved to see clearly the best course of action, your friend is free to stand back and assess what is in your long-term interests, and, sacked from your job that that is unlikely to be the new pair of Pradas, even if you still have one still-working credit card to charge it to.

If you wonder at Kahneman’s scepticism of our decision-making abilities, Wittgenstein’s position in Philosophical Investigations is even more extreme. Here he remarks: “I know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking,’ and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking.’”

This goes completely counter to our common sense of confidence in self-knowledge. I mean, if I cannot say “I think…” who can? Well, according to Kahneman and Wittgenstein, our friends. Someone not at the centre of the crisis can more objectively tell you what you are likely to feel in the future, therefore helping you make the best decision now.

Thus the importance of Horatio to Shakespeare’s melancholic, indecisive, unheroic avenger Hamlet. For having spent three hours deliberating by himself – shall he kill his uncle the king or not? If so, when and how? Or shall he just kill himself?! – Hamlet finally turns to his friend, Horatio for advice: “Doth it not, think thee, stand me now upon?” This is a wonderfully backward way (blimin’ ye olde syntax!) of asking whether Hamlet is not now called up to act. For, having encountered Laertes and seen the perfect picture of revenge, Hamlet says he better understands his own cause. That is, by looking out at how Laertes acts in a similar situation and by talking to Horatio, Hamlet escapes the futile introspection of the self and comes to clearer knowledge of his own course of action. He learns by watching and following his friends.

Doesn’t happen overnight

To get to that point where you feel comfortable trusting your friend’s judgement doesn’t just happen overnight – in the case of Friends it takes ten years and ten series. That’s the easiest and surest way to do it. But, as Mariko and I found, if you really both want it, it can happen in many different ways, you don’t even have to share the same space or time. We’ve had a running theme in the last eight years that when one of us moves to Europe, the other moves to Asia, almost as if (we laugh) we didn’t want to see each other. Is it intentional? Are we actually frenemies? Are one or both of us trying to tell the other something?

“Do you remember that time when we somehow found a BBC Shakespeare play hilarious? Or that time when we saw each other for two hours near Heathrow? Shall we meet in Beijing this year?”

The past, present and future that we share is almost always infused with a kind of laughter, a kind of optimism that wherever each of us end up in the world and in life, the other will always be on hand to chip in with a penny’s worth of thought and a joke or three. Perhaps not in person, but always via email or Skype, and even sometimes, we’ve found, via blog.

Perhaps the important thing is not where your friends are, but that you know that they are there, somewhere.