Having More Friends Increases Your Resistance to Pain

The more friends you have, the less pain you feel.

That sounds like the inside of a greeting card, or some sweet, syrupy metaphor, but it’s actually less schmaltz than science. According to a study conducted by researchers at Oxford University, “pain tolerance correlates with social network size in humans.” The bigger your social group, they found, the more impervious you are to pain.

Katerina Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate who co-authored the study, states the theory grew out of the association between friendship bonds and the release of endorphins, which makes us feel great overall.

“Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry,” Johnson says, “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.”

Since being among friends increases our levels of endorphins—which are “stronger even than morphine,” according to Johnson—it figures that the larger a person’s friend circle, the less susceptible to pain they’re likely to be.

A group of 101 study subjects were asked to answer a survey designating their levels of agreeableness, stress and fitness. Researchers then had the subjects squat with their backs against a wall and their knees at a 90-degree angle to the floor. (Like sitting, only without an actual chair for support.) When controlling for other factors, people who could withstand the discomfort the longest also had larger second-tier friendship groups—meaning people they likely don’t speak to every week, but may have monthly contact with.

“This relationship with brain endorphin activity may only be important when it comes to the limits of the number of close social bonds that we can maintain,” Johnson told the Guardian, “since nearly all of us have some friends and family that we rely on in times of need.”

Based on the study results, “an increase from seven to 12 friends in this second layer of contacts is predicted to boost tolerance in the pain test from one minute to four minutes on average,” per the Guardian.

It’s worth noting that the super-fit people in the study group, as you might expect, did pretty well on the endurance test. They tended to have smaller groups of friends, but likely benefit from the endorphin rush of exercise.

“It may simply be a question of time—individuals that spend more time exercising have less time to see their friends,” Johnson says. “However, there may be a more interesting explanation. Since both physical and social activities promote endorphin release, perhaps some people use exercise as an alternative means to get their 'endorphin rush' rather than socializing.”

The study didn’t look into the impact of Facebook friends that people literally don’t recognize or haven’t seen since high school, and as of press time, reported no intention to do so. 

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