17th May 2016
Contributing writer for Wake Up World
Social bonding has played a key role in our survival as a species. Some of the noted benefits of friendship from an evolutionary perspective include reduced vulnerability to predators, greater access to food resources, and protection from harassment. Today, though most of us no longer worry about being mauled by a predator as we go about our daily business, a healthy network of friends is still extremely valuable, acting like a safety net in life. Bolstered by the support of good friends, we can bound to great heights and celebrate the joys of life, and know that if we fall there will be someone there to offer comfort and assistance, to share our deepest fears and disappointments, and help make the dark moments much more bearable.
Recent studies have explored the science behind friendships and discovered that there are actually measurable differences between people who have strong, healthy social networks and those who don’t. In particular, people with strong friend connections were found to experience significantly better states of physical and mental health.
“People with social support have fewer cardiovascular problems and immune problems, and lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone,” says Tasha R. Howe, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University.
Adding to the growing research on the benefits of friendship, a recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University established that people with more friends have higher pain tolerance. Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in the University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, wanted to investigate the relationship between our neurobiology and the size of our social networks.
“I was particularly interested in a chemical in the brain called endorphin. 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. One theory, known as ‘the brain opioid theory of social attachment’, is that social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This gives us that feel-good factor that we get from seeing our friends,” said Johnson. “To test this theory, we relied on the fact that endorphin has a powerful pain-killing effect — stronger even than morphine.”
The study was designed to use pain tolerance to test the brain’s endorphin activity. The researchers theorised that people with larger social networks would, as a result, have higher pain tolerance. The findings of the study supported their theory in that it showed that indeed, strong social connections were correlated with higher pain tolerance.
“These results are also interesting because recent research suggests that the endorphin system may 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,” explained Johnson.
The study also noted that people with higher levels of stress hormones were more likely to have smaller groups of friends.
“The finding relating to stress may indicate that larger social networks help people to manage stress better, or it may be that stress or its causes mean people have less time for social activity, shrinking their network.
“Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live. Therefore, understanding why individuals have different social networks sizes and the possible neurobiological mechanisms involved is an important research topic. 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,” Katerina explained.
As mentioned in the final statement it is not just the size of our social network that is important to our wellbeing, but the quality of the friendships that matters as well. With the advent of the internet modern society is changing quickly, and our interactions are increasingly occurring online. Even though the internet can be a great way to connect with likeminded people, online friends just aren’t the same as those we can actually sit with and look directly in the eye when we communicate–and a digital hug is just nowhere near as good as a real one!
Tips-how to make real friends:
Get out: Some great ways to meet people in real life include volunteering, taking a class, or joining a club or interest group (websites like meetup.com list groups with various interests that meet up in real life locations around the world).
Be yourself: A healthy relationship is built on truth and realness. People who attempt to come across as something they are not often have difficulty making real friends because people tend to sense a lack of genuineness in their approach. Trust that real friends worth having will value you for who you truly are. If you feel a bit shy or awkward try mentioning it. This can act to alleviate the tension, and a potential real friend will value your sincerity. Remember, people tend to feel more at ease with friends who are able to share their weakness as well as their strengths.
A healthy friendship is a two way street: While you can’t develop a real friendship without sharing aspects of yourself, it is important not to get so caught up in your own story that the other person doesn’t feel valued or heard. Don’t be afraid to show interest in the other person, pay attention, listen carefully, and ask questions about their life, opinions, and feelings about things. Both parties should feel enriched by the social interaction. If one person feels drained afterwards, it can be an indication that the dynamic is not balanced.
Try to focus on the positive: If you are someone who tends to focus on the negative, this could be affecting the quantity and quality of your friendships, as well as your worldview. Learning to lessen your focus on the negative will not only make you more appealing to others, it will likely make your whole life experience more uplifting.
Don’t rush: Though there are times when we meet someone and feel an instant connection that feels like it reaches beyond this life, these special friendships are not the norm. Usually a deep friendship takes time to cultivate; it certainly can’t be forced. Try not to catapult yourself into a person’s life. People are often inclined to withdraw when someone comes across as too forward, desperate or needy.
Alone time: In the same way that it is important to give others space, it is also important to take time to love and nourish ourselves. When we take responsibility for our own wellbeing we don’t need to rely on others to uplift us. Having a healthy internal foundation means that we approach a friendship from a space of desire rather than neediness.
About the author:
Christina Lavers is a writer, an artist, a creative enthusiast, and an inner world explorer. Born in Montreal Quebec, Canada, she now lives with her life partner and son in a rainforest pocket in the hills behind Coffs Harbour, NSW Australia. She spends her time playing, creating, growing and sharing.
Christina is devoted to assisting people to find and connect with their own creative magical current that flows deep within. She is now offering a comprehensive e-course designed to help people light up their world with passion and creativity. You can access Section One here for free!
Christina has also recently published her first full length book, a memoir about her wild awakening journey entitled Jump Into the Blue, and she is currently working on the next one.
“My journey has been about personal alchemy… exploring the mysteries of my soul and my environment, and learning to bring all aspects, the light and the dark, together with the transcending ingredient… love. The more I uncover and nurture the wounded aspects of my being, the more whole and grounded I feel and the more my outer world reflects the love, wonder and magic I have discovered inside”.
You can follow Christina’s work at:
Recommended reading by Christina Lavers:
- Are You a Bridge Between Two Worlds?
- Addictive Behavior Related to Low Levels of Oxytocin, the “Love/Bonding Hormone”
- 10 Signs You’ve Bought Spin
- New Study Shows Regular Contact with Nature Reduces Crime, Increases Social Cohesion
- Sugar is as Addictive as Cocaine – Here’s How You Can Kick the Habit
- Research Shows Just 7 Minutes of Meditation Can Reduce Racial Prejudice
- Taking Care of Our Inner Tribes – Microflora, Awakening and You
- Groundbreaking Study Maps the Decline of Wild Bee Communities in the United States
- Taking Responsibility For Our Energy
- More Evidence That TV is Dumbing Us Down
- Synchrony and Exertion of Dancing Found to Encourage Social Bonding, Raise Pain Threshold
- Quitting Smoking? Try These Herbs, Tips and Incentives to Help You Succeed!