People who have more friends have a higher tolerance for pain, new research finds.
Friendships really do help to take the pain away, the study concludes.
Ms Katerina Johnson, the study’s first author, explained how endorphins help kill pain:
“Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry — they’re our body’s natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure.
Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social bonding in both 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.
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.”
Along with a link between larger social networks and higher pain tolerance, two other interesting findings emerged.
People who were fitter had fewer friends; also those who reported higher stress tended to have smaller social networks.
Ms Johnson explained:
“It may simply be a question of time — individuals that spend more time exercising have less time to see their friends.
…[or] perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their ‘endorphin rush’ rather than socialising.
The finding relating to stress may indicate that larger social networks help people to manage stress better, or it may be that stress or its causes mean people have less time for social activity, shrinking their network.
Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live.
Therefore, understanding why individuals have different social networks sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic.
As a species, we’ve evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society.”
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports (Johnson & Dunbar et al., 2016).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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