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Better than morphine: the more friends you have, the better you can cope with physical pain

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There are probably a number of reasons you appreciate your friends. That’s probably why you’re friends in the first place, right? Because you enhance each other’s lives enough to justify remaining in them.

But of all the many and varied reasons you value your mates, we’ll bet that having them around because they bolster your ability to withstand physical pain is not one of them.

However that’s exactly what a newly published Oxford University study indicates – that those of us with larger social groups have a higher pain threshold.

The research, published in Scientific Reports, explored whether there’s a link between the number of friends a person has and their production of endorphins – chemicals released by the body that help regulate pain and pleasure.

As the study states, endorphins are known to be a potent natural painkiller, “indeed more so than the pain-relieving opiate drug morphine”. With that in mind, the researchers were testing “whether pain tolerance […] predicts social network size.”

The researchers used pain tolerance as a proxy for endorphin activity, and tested the tolerance of 101 adults aged between 18 and 34 with the ‘wall sit test’ – squatting against a wall with knees at a 90° angle and a straight back for as long as they could stand it.

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Do you want your endorphins from friends or exercise? Yep, us too...

They also asked them to assess their friendships with a questionnaire relating to the “two innermost social network layers” of those they contacted at least once a week and those they contacted once a month.

The team found that people with more friends held out for longer. Interestingly, as they took into account different levels of fitness, they also noticed that fitter people tended to have fewer friends (though it’s not known if this is because exercising took up more of their spare time, or because working out produces endorphins meaning they didn’t need to spend time with friends).

Participants who were more stressed also had smaller groups of friends.

Author of the study Katerina Johnson, from the Department of Experimental Psychology, commented: “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.”

The paper continued: “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.”

While previous studies have suggested it’s quality not quantity that matters when it comes to psychological well-being later in life, if you’re planning to squat by walls a lot, perhaps it’s worth translating some of those online friends (the ones you wouldn't rely on in a crisis) into real-life pals…

Images: Rex Features / iStock

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