How powerful is friendship? Researchers at the University of Virginia wanted to find out whether friendship influences how we approach the challenges of daily life. In an unusual experiment, researchers stood at the base of a steep hill (a 26-degree incline) on the university campus and asked 34 students as they walked by to help them in an experiment. Some students were by themselves, others were walking in pairs.
The students were given a backpack filled with weights equal to about 20 percent of their body weight. While they may have had the impression they were going to have to climb the hill, the researchers simply asked them to estimate how steep the climb would be.
Notably, students standing alone perceived the hill slant as steeper and thought it would be harder to climb while carrying the weighted pack. But students who were standing next to a friend thought the hill looked easier to climb and gave lower estimates of its steepness. Interestingly, the longer the two friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.
Other studies support the notion that social support helps us cope with stress. When female college students were asked to complete challenging math tasks, their heart rates went up. But when they were asked to complete the math problems with a friend in the room, their heart rates were lower. Scientists also know that when rhesus monkeys are moved to a new environment, the level of stress hormones in their blood increases. But when a monkey is moved along with her preferred companion (monkeys form friendships, too), the stress hormones measured in her blood were much lower. (Similar results have been seen with rats and guinea pigs.)
All this research suggests that friends can change our view of a challenging situation, and that the mere presence of a friend in the same room can lower our stress. Having friends essentially allows us to outsource some of the emotional burdens of daily life.
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