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Make More Friends, Feel Less Pain

Oxford University researchers find a link between tolerance of pain and the size of one’s social network.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Yasmina Choueiri/Flickr)

When a physician gives you a shot, do you shrug it off, or wince in agony? How about when you burn your hand on the stove, or pull a muscle? Small discomfort, or major torment?

The answer may depend upon the number of people you count as friends.

New research from Oxford University finds people with larger social circles are better able to tolerate pain. The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests bonding with others releases endorphins, often called “the body’s natural pain killers.”

So your buddy Tyler may effectively function as human Tylenol.

The study featured 101 young adults (30 men, 77 women) recruited primarily from the University of Oxford. They filled out a series of surveys, indicating how many people they contact at least once a week, and how many they contact at least once a month.

To measure pain tolerance — and, indirectly, endorphin release — they were instructed to squat against a wall with their back straight and their knees at a 90-degree angle. “They were asked to hold this position and endure the discomfort for as long as possible,” the researchers write.

People with larger social circles are better able to tolerate pain.

The results “revealed pain tolerance to be a significant predictor of social network size — in particular, the size of an individual’s outer network layer (people they contact at least monthly),” write co-authors Katerina Johnson and Robin Dunbar. On average, people with larger social networks (in the pre-Internet sense of the term) were able to stay in that uncomfortable position longer than those with fewer friends.

Another interesting finding: Participants with higher levels of physical fitness tended to have smaller social networks. “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,” Johnson told the Oxford University press office.

“Exercise is frequently prescribed as a treatment for depression,” she and Dunbar note in their paper. “Perhaps focus should also be placed on strengthening and expanding an individual’s social ties.”

They conclude that “in this digital era, deficiencies in our social interactions may be one of the overlooked factors” explaining why so many people complain of pain. Needless to say, many pain-relieving drugs can become addictive, leading to enormous problems on both the personal and societal level.

So, rather than pleading with your doctor for a pain killer, you might want to try a natural approach to boost your endorphin production. Singing, drumming, and dancing have proven effective at this; so, it seems, is simply expanding your social circle.

Remember, Rachel, Ross, and the gang were generally pain-free — other than that time Monica was stung by a jellyfish.