Tuesday 27 September 2016

Forget social media, there's no substitute for real friends

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

'If friends can act as a better painkiller than morphine, we’d better nurture the ones we have and rush out and make some more'. Stock photo: Getty
'If friends can act as a better painkiller than morphine, we’d better nurture the ones we have and rush out and make some more'. Stock photo: Getty

Good friends are good for your health. In fact, new research suggests that people with more friends have higher pain thresholds. If friends can act as a better painkiller than morphine, we'd better nurture the ones we have and rush out and make some more.

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The goal of the study, carried out by Katerina Johnson at Oxford University, was to test the idea that social interactions trigger positive emotions because those interactions cause endorphins to bind to certain receptors in the brain. This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends.

Johnson said: "Endorphins are part of our pain and pleasure circuitry - they're our body's natural painkillers and also give us feelings of pleasure. Previous studies have suggested that endorphins promote social bonding in both humans and other animals."

To test the theory, Johnson relied on the fact that endorphins have a powerful pain-killing effect.

Because endorphins act as a natural painkiller, the researchers used pain tolerance as a way to assess the brain's endorphin levels.

One hundred and one young adults were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their social lives, lifestyles and personality.

Then they were asked to squat against a wall with their knees at a 90-degree angle and their backs straight.

The participants who were able to endure the pain test for the longest time were the ones with the larger social networks.

Interestingly, however, fitter people tended to have smaller networks of friends. This is probably due to a time issue. If they are spending a lot of time exercising, they have less time to spend with friends.

Exercise is also a way to release endorphins so it's another way of mining that natural painkiller.

The other set of people who were found to have fewer friends were those with higher stress 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 says.

Humans are by their nature social creatures who need the comfort and support of others, so it is natural to imagine those with fewer friends may find life more difficult.

Friends and family are the people who rally around when you're sick, feeling low or struggling with life and all the difficulties it can throw at you. These people provide the support network we all need to get through tough times.

Having people in your life who are understanding and kind can make a huge difference to your quality of life.

But many adults find it hard to develop new friendships or keep up existing friendships.

With life getting busier by the day, friendships can take a back seat to other priorities like work, children or caring for ageing parents.

Developing and maintaining good friendships takes effort. But the enjoyment and comfort friendship can provide makes the investment worthwhile.

With the world now obsessed with relationships made on social media, loneliness is becoming a bigger issue.

A 'friend' you make on Facebook or Twitter isn't going to call over to you and hold your hand while you cry over a serious problem.

Nor are they likely to call in with chicken soup when you are bed-bound.

People need physical contact, they need to be with other people, not typing messages to faceless 'friends'.

Social interaction has been proven to cut the risk of mortality and illness. The problem with those suffering from depression or mental health issues is that they can be daunted by the idea of socialising. But it is vital not to become withdrawn, as this will only aggravate the problem and the feelings of isolation.

Peter Saddington, a counsellor for relationship advice service Relate, suggests that simply saying hello to neighbours can heighten a sense of belonging.

Experts also advise that we should ban technological devices during mealtimes to allow families and friends to interact properly and enjoy quality time together, rather than checking their phones every five minutes.

We can sometimes forget how much work a friendship needs. It takes effort to maintain and is easy to take for granted but, ultimately, the more you invest in relationships the happier and healthier you are likely to be.

While it can be fun to cultivate a diverse network of friends and acquaintances on social media, it is important to nurture those really good friends who will be there for you through thick and thin.

The ones who will turn up on your doorstep when the chips are down and help you through the dark days with their boost of endorphins.

Irish Independent

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