Friends - the natural painkiller: Study finds wide social circle better than morphine

© Dinuka Liyanawatte
People with a large circle of friends feel less pain, according to new research from Oxford University exploring the relationship between pain thresholds and social network size.

The study entitled ‘Pain tolerance predicts human social network size’ tested whether people with big groups of friends had a higher level of endorphins - chemicals produced by the body.

Endorphins are linked to feelings of pleasure, reduce physical discomfort and are, in effect, the body’s natural painkillers. They can be even stronger than morphine, according to previous research.

“At an equivalent dose, endorphins have been shown to be stronger than morphine,” Katerina Johnson said, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, who co-authored the study published in Nature.

One hundred and one adults, aged between 18 and 34, completed a questionnaire about their social life and personality before their pain tolerance was measured. They were asked to squat against a wall, with their back straight and knees at a right angle, and stay in that position until they couldn’t endure it any longer.

The researchers found that people with larger social networks had a higher pain tolerance.

They also noted that fitter people and those with higher reported stress levels tended to have smaller social networks.

Fitter people could still endure the pain for long periods. One explanation for this, Johnson said, was that physical activity also promotes endorphin release, and so fit people may get their endorphin rush from exercising rather than socializing.

Johnson noted the results are also interesting in light of previous research, which suggested the endorphin system might 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“This may be part of the reason why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and become socially withdrawn,” she said.

The researchers have called for further study into the link between pain tolerance and social network size, and to determine exactly how the size of a person's social network affects their endorphin levels.

"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," Johnson said.