Why Friends Matter – Sharing Burdens and Resources

My friend story

I remember getting out of a grueling two-day training and earlier in the day, had dragged myself to Greenlake for lunch, backpack and all. It was a beautiful day and I was pooped out. Usually, when I'm tired, I don't think straight, and I had bought a large vegan pizza to eat all by myself. I only managed two slices and carried this ridiculously large pizza box with me the rest of the day.

With eager anticipation, my best friend met me afterwards and we'd decided to have a pizza picnic at the same lake. Somehow, walking together down the same busy road made the trek seemed shorter. My backpack, weighing just as much, also felt lighter.

Now, one could argue I was distracted by our conversation, or felt relieved with the training ending, hence the perception change. Those things could all be true. However, what does research tell us about the company of a significant other and what that does to our perception of a situational stress? In other words, is it possible for us to perceive the world as having more demands when we're alone, compared to when we're with a partner? 

The hill is not that steep, or is it? 

According to a 2008 study by Schanll and colleagues, they had people stand in front of a hill and estimate how steep it was. What they've found is that there's a tendency for people to over-estimate how steep the hill was. It's like their bodies were trying to talk them out of walking up that hill, “Don't do it! Conserve your energy! It's too steep!” The same hill grew even steeper when they carried a backpack weighing 20% of their body weight.

The interesting finding is that for participants who went to the study alone, they estimated the hill to be more steep compared to those accompanied by a friend. In fact, even the thought of a friend was enough to level the hill some. And, the longer the friendship, the less steep the hill. How do you make sense of that?

Friends lend you resources

We all have limited resources and we often calculate that against our demands. Stand me in front of a steep hill and I'm calculating how much resources my body has to walk up that hill. Could it be that my physiological resources are enhanced when there is a friend with me, especially someone I have come to know and trust? Somehow, the burden of drudging up that hill is lightened with the presence of another, or even just the thought of that other. 

Thumbs up for friends

Never mind that my best friend in this case is my husband. He is very awesome. I will say that him being there didn't change my perception of the fake cheese pizza: it tasted pretty gross. Well, there is someone to share it with.

Who have you got to stand beside you? Want to better your relationships to help you face the challenges of life? Let me know!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping individuals and couples flourish and grow through difficult life transitions. When she's not yogaing, she's outside with her husband, climbing not-so-steep hills.