From Wednesday 16 – Sunday 20 September, The Boiler House on Brick Lane, London, will be transformed into the ultimate Friends experience, giving people the chance to explore an exhibition and full-scale recreations of Monica’s apartment and Central Perk. But most of all FriendsFest gives us a chance to reconsider the importance of friendship in getting us through the darkest times.
Friends turned 21 this weekend; meaning if it were human, the sitcom would finally be able to order a drink in uptown New York.
For many, this milestone will inspire disbelief (yes you really are that old) as much as a sense of nostalgia. Flashbacks over Ross and Rachel ‘being on a break’, 90s haircuts, “Smelly Cat” and Central Perk. But the show should also be celebrated for another more subtle reason – the way it portrayed bromance and showed men it’s OK to ask, ‘How you doin’?’
It is often said that comedy speaks the truth, and yet over a decade on from its finale, no other show since has managed to explore male friendship so fully and honestly. Whether helping Ross get over heartbreak, Joey and Chandler dealing with girlfriend envy, or everyone helping Joey get over his feelings of work inadequacy, the series touched every base.
The absence of similar portrayals in shows is glaring, particularly given how the need for men to open up is more desperate now than ever, with suicide rates amongst young males at 15 year high. In 2013, it was the single biggest cause of death in men aged 20-45 in the UK, and remains three times more common in males than females.
In a bid to address the problem, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) announced 2015 as the Year of the Male, aiming to challenge the culture that prevents men from seeking help when they need it.
Friendship lies at the heart of the battle to meet this challenge. A recent study of more than 2,000 high-school students displaying depressive symptoms found that if the sufferer had a high enough percentage of “healthy mood” friends, their chances of recovering doubled. Equally, for those not depressed, a circle of mentally healthy friends halved the chances of mental challenges arising.
But of course, for friendship to work, it needs to be accessible in the first place. In this age of social-media led communication, with its focus on style over substance, immediacy of response is often prioritised over meaningful contact. Our digital lives have doubled the need to appear strong, fun-loving and successful, even if in reality isolation is king.
This superficial success is dominated by what psychologists term extrinsic values; money, image, social status, all at the expense of intrinsic values – our inner yearning for personal growth and friendship – that more deeply impacts our mental health. And as a billionaire video-game creator explained recently, money really doesn’t buy greater happiness.
The beauty of Friends was that it turned this focus on its head. Each of the characters were not defined by their work, but rather their personalities, which shone through the interaction as friends. The humour of Joey and Chandler’s frequent hugs, moments watching football on the comfy chairs, and Ross’s pining for Rachel, came from the knowledge that yes, men can all relate to this, even if they often hold back from fully exploring their feelings.
As a Samaritan worker explained to me: “….my listening role to people feeling depressed and suicidal has really highlighted how even the smallest interactions from friends can make a difference. Often the men who contact us feel unable to speak to friends. The old adage of ‘getting on with it’ is strong, as is the sense that it will be perceived as weak to open up about problems.”
“Friends is one of the shows that comes to mind when I try and offer more long-term coping mechanisms. It highlighted the little moments of male friendship. As much as my objective, outsider status over the phone helps people in moments of desperation, the long-term support comes from a close, personal family and friend network”.
And so, if you attend Comedy Central’s FriendsFest this weekend, with the sets fully redesigned in celebration, why not take your friends for a drink at Central Perk. Or, better still, if in Starbucks you see someone alone, give a smile and say hello. You never know what difference your friendship could make.