Our body’s natural painkiller likely plays a major role in the link.
There’s plenty of evidence that confirms our evolutionary need, as humans, to form social bonds and connections with other human beings. Friendships can benefit us in a number of ways, and now to add to the list, researchers from Oxford University have found that people with more friends tend to have a higher tolerance for pain.
A doctoral student in the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, Katerina Johnson, was interested in exploring whether differences in neurobiology could help explain why some people have larger social networks than others. The team of researchers suspect that endorphins, a chemical in the brain, may be responsible for the link between higher pain tolerance and having more friends.
“Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry -- they're our body's natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure,” Johnson said in a press release.
She says that one theory, known as the “brain opioid theory of social attachment,” suggests that social interactions trigger positive emotions as a result of endorphin binding to opioid receptors in the brain. Basically, this would explain the good feelings we get from hanging out with friends.
“To test this theory, we relied on the fact that endorphin has a powerful pain-killing effect -- stronger even than morphine,” explains Johnson.
So, to clarify, the researchers used pain tolerance as a proxy measurement for the amount of endorphins produced in the body, but they didn’t specifically measure endorphins in their work.
In the study, the researchers analyzed data from 100 participants, and each individual reported basic information (like age and sex) and completed a survey about their two innermost circles of friends, as Popular Science reports.
The body also releases endorphins during exercise, so the researchers asked the participants to do a squat against the wall with their legs at a 90 degree angle for as long as they could hold the pose.
After accounting for different levels of fitness, the researchers found that people with larger networks of friends could do wall sits for longer — which they interpreted as a sign of more endorphins and higher pain tolerance.
Another interesting finding was that people who were more fit or those with higher stress levels tended to have smaller groups of friends. The researchers suggest that this could be because they’re getting their endorphins from other sources in their lives — like exercise — or that they simply might be busier and lack the time to maintain a high number of friendships.
“These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression,” noted Johnson. “This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn.”
Johnson notes that previous studies have suggest that the quality and quantity of our social relationships affect both physical and mental health and may even be a factor that determines how long we live.
“As a species, we've evolved to thrive in a rich social environment but in this digital era,” she says, “deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors contributing to the declining health of our modern society.”
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