In Beijing this past summer, Michael Phelps won three of his record eight Olympic gold medals during relay events. Anyone watching his teary-eyed solo appearances on the podium probably wondered whether he found those medals more rewarding than the victories he had to share four ways.
But recent neuroscience research suggests that winning with a team actually beats winning by oneself.
In one line of this research, neuroscientists measured brain activity while partners either cooperated to earn a reward or defected, going off on their own to earn the same reward. According to the results of several studies, summarized in a recent article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science by neuroscientists Golnaz Tabibnia and Matthew Hertenstein, cooperation produces stronger activity in brain structures along the mesolimbic pathway, a circuit known to signal pleasure in rodents, primates, and humans. (Sharing and being treated fairly also activate these regions.) What’s more, when people were asked to rate how they felt after earning their rewards, their responses corroborated the brain scans: They said they felt greater pleasure and satisfaction after succeeding as a team than on their own.
More evidence for the benefits of group victories comes from research on emotion contagion, which shows that people automatically mimic and, to a certain extent, feel the emotions expressed by people they see. For instance, a 2005 article by researchers in Germany, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that when people looked at others who were smiling, their same brain regions activated as when they themselves smiled. When these neural circuitries activate, it makes you feel like you do when you’re smiling. Having your smile circuits turned on also makes you more likely to smile, bringing more happy feelings toward the fore of your consciousness. Ultimately, then, this research suggests that seeing teammates’ expressions of triumph and joy may enhance one’s own experience of triumph and joy.
Only Michael Phelps can say for sure whether winning an Olympic gold for the 100-meter freestyle was more or less satisfying than having his team win the 400-meter freestyle relay. But for the rest of us, it seems that teamwork can boost the pleasure we derive from everyday accomplishments.