Friends are thought to be companions who make us feel better in times of sorrow and pain, and researchers say they literally serve as painkillers. The more friends one has, the higher the tolerance for pain, according to research.

A study conducted by the University of Oxford in England showed that having more friends increases pain tolerance due to increased endorphin levels in the brain. Endorphin serves as a natural painkiller in the body and is responsible for positive feelings. The chemical is also better painkiller than morphine.

Doctoral student Katerina Johnson and evolutionary psychology professor Robin Dunbar sought to prove early theories that endorphins do not only make you feel good, but they also help you tolerate physical pain.

"Social behavior and being attached to other individuals is really important for our survival – whether that is staying close to our parents, or our offspring or cooperating with others to find food or to help defend ourselves," Johnson said.

To be able to know the correlation between a large social network and pain tolerance, the researchers asked 101 participants aged 18 to 34 to answer a questionnaire that evaluates the participants' frequency of meeting their friends on weekly and monthly bases. The test also looked into the personalities, stress levels and fitness of the participants.

To prove the theory, the researchers instructed the participants to do a wall squat. They asked them to lean their backs on the wall while positioning their legs at a 90-degree angle. The participants could stay in that position as long as they could.

The wall squatting served as an indirect method for the researchers to gauge the endorphin activity in the brains of the participants.

The activity revealed that both sexes having many friends had higher tolerance for pain. It also showed that meeting friends on a monthly basis proved to be a vital factor of the link between the pain tolerance and bigger social networks compared to a weekly basis.

Additionally, the controlled stress levels, fitness and personality were seen to improve pain tolerance on an average of one to four minutes if there had also been an increase in the next layer of contacts with seven to 12 friends.

Those who practice good fitness routine endured the pain longer, but surprisingly they belong to a smaller peer group. The researchers speculate that the fitness enthusiasts already satisfy their socializing needs in the gym.

"Both exercise and socializing trigger the endorphin system," said Johnson.

The researchers also found that those who have high stress levels have smaller social networks, though there's a small correlation to tolerance for pain.

The researchers noted that even though their study supports earlier evidence of endorphin linked to social interactions, it is not clear what makes the difference among individuals.

According to Johnson, it's not known whether the relationship between increased pain tolerance and large social networks is caused by the endorphin dampening the pain or the fact that people with greater endorphin levels – and higher pain tolerance – happen to enjoy social interactions and having more friends.

Lauri Nummenmaa of Aalto University, Finland, said the study could be used to further explore more avenues of endorphin system linking to people socializing.

"Those [kinds] of experiments are needed to really nail down what is going on," Nummenmaa said.

The study was published on April 28 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Photo: Andrew Mager | Flickr

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