The more friends you have, the less pain you feel.
A new Oxford University study examining social networks and endorphin levels has found that people with more friends have a higher pain tolerance.
Lead by Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in the university’s Department of Experimental Psychology, the study questioned whether differences in neurobiology may explain why some people have larger social networks than others. Endorphins, the chemicals in our brain that control both pain and pleasure, or as Johnson calls them, “our body’s natural painkillers,” were of particular focus.
She points to previous studies that suggest that endorphins promote social bonding in humans and other animals.
“One theory, known as ‘the brain opioid theory of social attachment’, is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain,” says Johnson. “This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends. To test this theory, we relied on the fact that endorphin has a powerful pain-killing effect – stronger even than morphine.”
The researchers used pain tolerance as a way to assess the brain’s endorphin activity and to test their theory that people with larger social networks have higher pain tolerance.
The study asked 101 healthy adults to squat against a wall with knees at a 90° angle and a straight back for as long as they possibly could. The participants also answered questionnaires about their two closest friendship circles; individuals they spoke to every week and those they spoke to monthly. As it turned out, having many friends can be the best painkiller – those with larger social networks could endure the pain for longer. This means, of course, that people with more friends had higher levels of endorphins.
“These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression. This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn,” says Johnson.
Somewhat surprisingly, the results also found that both fitter people and those with higher levels of stress tend to have smaller social networks.
As Johnson points out, this could come down to a matter of time allocation: people who spend more time at the gym have less time to see their friends. Alternatively, she says some people could simply turn to fitness over friendship for their endorphin release. As for the stress factor, the findings indicate both that having more friends may help manage stress better, or that stress makes people either retreat or have less time for friends, decreasing their social network.
Either way, there’s no denying your feel-good mood comes from some quality BFF time. As Johnson highlights, previous research suggests that the quality and quantity of our social relationships affect both physical and mental health. It may even determine how long we live.
“As a species, we’ve evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era,” says Johnson. “Deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society.”