Many friends make light work

Friends: Transforming mountains into molehills Image credit: YoTuT

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That well known phrase reminds us that each individual perceives things differently. But, more interesting is the fact that each individual’s perception can be changed by certain factors. You must have experienced this yourself: having the unfortunate luck of being forced to cycle up Castle Hill, Cambridge’s only hill, to get home, after a tiring morning of lectures. Just by feeling the weight of your folder laden rucksack, makes that formidable hill seem all the taller, like a cycle ride up the slopes of Mt Everest.

Whilst most of you must think I’m exaggerating, scientists have shown that a heavy rucksack actually does make a person perceive a hill to be steeper. The theory is based on the ‘Economy of Action’, suggested by Professor Proffitt of the University of Virginia, that before we make an action our brains evaluate what our current level of resources are and accordingly change our perception. So, having a heavy rucksack means we’ll need more energy to climb a hill, and by perceiving it to be steeper we’re less likely to expend the energy. These ‘resources’ apply to other body states, whether we’ve had an energy drink that’s sugar free or if we’re in a poor physical state, as in old age or after an exhausting run, we’ll think a hill steeper or a task more difficult.

So far, so good: if we don’t have the energy or resources our ‘brains’ would be less likely to plan another tiring action. That being said, it’s not just physical resources that change our perceptions, ‘pyschosocial’ resources can also alter how we see demanding actions.

These ‘pyschosocial’ resources include social support from our friends and pets, and how we perceive ourselves socially. So just as a sugary drink makes a hill seem less steep, having a friend can do the same. Work by Dr Simone Schnall and collagues of the University of Cambridge’s Physchology Department found that having a friend we feel quite close to, or have known for a long period of time, decreased the slope perceived. In contrast, having a person we didn’t particularly like acted to increase the slope. Amazingly the same effects were seen when, instead of a friend being close, subjects of a study were asked to think of a friend.

Friends, and our furry, fluffy pets, make up our social support network which help lighten the load, especially in the face of challenges. And in Cambridge, where challenges are rife, the support of our friends can really help to unburden us. Not only do our friends make hills seem less steep, but they help us cope with stress better too. In doing so, our social support promote lower levels of illnesses and give protection from a number of stress related illness, from cancers to the dreaded winter cold. They certainly make those last-minute essay crises easier to deal with!

So next time you have to face up to a challenging task, possibly finally facing the steep slopes of Castle Hill or attempting that long awaited essay, why not try increasing your ‘resources’ with some chocolate or better yet with a close friend. After all, many friends make light work. 

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