Having friends would be good for health, according to several studies that have highlighted a link between strong social relationships and a low level of stress and anxiety. At stake, the secretion of a hormone naturally synthesized by the body, oxytocin (nicknamed “the pleasure hormone”), which increases when a person is in contact with friends.
However, the “power of friendship” would go even further, according to work done by researchers at Oxford University (UK) and published in the journal Scientific Reports: it would help against pain, and is better than morphine! The cause of this phenomenon is not oxytocin but other hormones, called “endorphins”.
“Endorphins are chemical compounds secreted by our brain and associated with the circuits of pain and pleasure,” Katerina Johnson, a psychology researcher and lead author of the study, said in a statement. These are natural pain relievers released under stress, intense physical activity, pain and orgasm, which give us pleasure. “Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social linkage in humans and other animals,” adds the specialist.
Work published in 2015 showed that in the event of social acceptance, certain regions of the brain release more endorphins. On the contrary, people with social anxiety (or depression) release less.
“In our study, we hypothesized that endorphins had a strong analgesic effect, even stronger than morphine,” says Katerina Johnson. The researchers therefore used pain tolerance as an indicator of endorphin activity in the brain. If their theory was correct, then participants with stronger social ties would have a higher tolerance for pain.
This is indeed what they found in 107 subjects (30 men and 77 women) whose average age was 22 years (between 18 and 34 years). The most well-rounded participants turned out to be those who suffered the least (during a typical physical exercise used in psychological research to test pain). Note that the size of the “external” social network, according to the study, is the number of people contacted at least once each month.
While endorphinic activity can be disrupted in psychological disorders such as depression, these results also help explain why depressed people often suffer from a lack of pleasure and often break their social bonds. Indeed, the study confirms that higher levels of stress are associated with smaller social networks…
Unfortunately, our hyperconnected society does not tend to favor social ties. “We have evolved to thrive in a rich social environment, but in this digital age, gaps in our social interactions can be part of the neglected factors that contribute to the deterioration of our health,” concludes Katerina Johnson, the author of the study.