Power in Numbers

Hippos can teach us about healthy living.

In an episode of “Nature” on PBS, a hippopotamus thunders over the dusty savannah, heading for a cool spring that is teeming with fish. The hippo storms into the water, opens its massive jaws and …

Lets the fish clean its teeth?

Not exactly the hippo vs. carp death match we expect from the animal kingdom, is it? But it turns out that many animals work together like this to improve their health and survival.

We humans also have a long history of cooperating with other species. From cats to horses to honey bees, we’ve been providing meals and shelter to animals in exchange for food, labor, companionship—and whatever it is cats give us—for millennia.

The benefits of this cooperation are surprisingly well-documented. Did you know that having a pet, for instance, can improve our mood, social interactions, stress levels, anxiety and even our cardiovascular health?

The power of the pack

Cooperation within our own species is even more important for our health.

Orcas, lions and wolves hunt in packs to take down larger prey than they could individually, while elephants and hyenas can fend off attacks from these predators when they stick together.

And while it might be surprising, it does make sense. Survival in the wild doesn’t mean “last one standing.” It means survival and success of the group. You can’t be the alpha dog if you don’t have a pack, right?

The same goes for humans. We might believe that competition is the most effective way to bring out the best in us, but decades of research tell us that cooperation is the real key to better performance, health and happiness.

Cooperation helps us try more

A neurological process called mirroring happens when we watch someone else performing an action, like doing a lunge or hitting a baseball. As we watch the person, the neural pathways in our brain that we would use to swing the bat and hit the ball fire in response.

Mirroring was recently described in “The Atlantic” as “vicarious experience,” and it is thought to be an important part of our ability to empathize with others. This theory fits nicely with other research that indicates the more we watch others hit baseballs, the more we start to see ourselves as someone who can hit baseballs, too.

It’s the classic “If you can do it, I can do it” attitude. And it’s related to what psychologists call “self-efficacy” and “self-perception”: the belief that we can meet challenges, stick with them and see them through.

Cooperation makes us healthier

Regular exercise is the single best way to reduce our risk of all chronic diseases—from Alzheimer’s to cancer to depression (and more). But sticking with exercise for the long haul can be difficult.

But not if we work together. Exercise programs that promote group cooperation help us adapt to health behaviors and stay interested in exercise because they make us feel like part of a team.

Obstacle-course racing is a great example. It has become wildly popular in recent years, in large part because it puts a high value on cooperation, teamwork and community.

Cooperating is just more fun

You may know that exercise can give your brain an endorphin rush, sometimes called a “runner’s high.” This release of feel-good hormones blocks pain and makes us feel fantastic.

But those of us who exercise alone may actually be missing out.

In 2009, a study at the University of Oxford enlisted its famous rowing team to help researchers compare the endorphin effect on team rowers to the effect on solo rowers.

Going in, the researchers knew that physical group experiences tend to create a strong sense of euphoria in participants—things like playing music, laughing at a sold-out comedy show and dancing in a large crowd.

They wanted to find out if cooperative exercise could produce similar effects.

The results showed that not only did the team effort produce an endorphin high, but its effects also were twice as strong as the effects on a solo rower.

Humans are arguably the most successful species on the planet. We’re not the biggest, strongest or fastest, but we are perhaps the most skilled cooperators.

If we can actively harness that ability, how much healthier, happier and more successful might we become?

Photography: Alexey Kuzma, Stocsky; GiorgioMagini, Thinkstock; saraplacey, Thinkstock; Tom Casey, box24studio.com; Hex., Stocksy