Generally speaking, the weird benefits of friendship can be, well, pretty weird. First of all, there are the oddly codependent behaviors that characterize many close friendships: writing texts for each other, getting their input on banal, everyday decisions, sacred weekly dates to watch the latest episodes of Broad City — you get the idea. However, research has shown that platonic relationships are important to physical as well as mental health. In the past, friendships have been associated with everything from improved hearth health to an extended lifespan, but this month, researchers may have found the weirdest benefit of them all. According to a recent study, your friends may serve as literal painkillers.
In a study published in Scientific Reports this month, researchers at the University of Oxford asked more than 100 young adults about their social networks. For the purposes of the study, social circles were divided into two innermost "layers," so to speak: close friends, whom participants contacted at least once a month, and intimate friends, whom participants contacted at least once a week. After collecting information on their friendships, demographics, and personality, researchers administered a test designed to measure participants' pain tolerance.
Based on previous research indirectly linking social bonding and endorphins, researchers hypothesized that people with more friends would have a higher pain tolerance, and that's exactly what happened. Even after controlling for level of fitness, pain tolerance turned out to be a predictor of social network size; in other words, people with higher pain tolerances tended to have a larger friend group — especially the "outer layer" of close friends.
Given that endorphins are associated with both pain tolerance and social bonding, researchers believe that larger social networks could trigger the rush of hormones, which, in turn, dull our perception of pain. "Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers, and they’re actually stronger than morphine," lead author and doctoral student Katerina Johnson told Time.
Interestingly, the study turned up an unexpected result: Participants' levels of fitness were negatively correlated with social network size. Although people who were more fit generally performed better on the pain tolerance test, they actually tended to have fewer close friends. This could have a number of explanations; for instance, fit people may spend more time exercising than hanging out with friends. However, researchers also noted that fit people may simply rely on exercise for endorphins, so they seek out fewer friendships — given the design of the study, there's no way to tell for sure. Finally, people who reported more stress also had fewer close friendships, which could speak to the importance of social networks in healthily dealing with stress.
Of course, this isn't to say that anyone needs large social networks. Whether you have a Taylor Swift-style squad or just a few ultra-close friendships, the important part is that you're happy. Also, it should be noted that the sight of your best friend's face doesn't literally function as a morphine hit... although it's close enough. If that's not an excuse to bring them along to your next bikini wax, I don't know what is. It's not codependent if it's based on science, right?
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