Brain Scans Show Being Generous Really Does Make You Happier

Helping others makes you happier and it appears to be physical not just psychological. These are the conclusions of a study, published in Nature Communications, that looked at the brains of participants who either behaved selflessly or selfishly.

The research was a collaboration between a psychologist, neurologist, and economist to see if there was any physical connection between being generous and feeling happy, the so-called “warm glow” people get when helping others.

The researchers promised a sum of money to 50 participants and split them into two groups, one where the people promised to spend the money on others and one where they promised to spend it on themselves. The participants were asked about their happiness before and after the study. The generous group self-reported feeling happier afterward.

The research team looked at MRI scans of the participants' brains and focused on three areas. The orbitofrontal cortex, where we consider a decision, the temporoparietal junction, where generous behavior is processed, and the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness.

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The three areas lit up differently in the scans depending on whether the participant was in the generous group or the selfish group. Just promising to be altruistic activated the temporoparietal junction and strengthened its connection to the ventral striatum. So, it appears, generosity led to happiness.

"It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented," co-author Philippe Tobler, neuroeconomist from the University of Zurich, said in a statement.

"You don't need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice."

So if we want to be happy should we just promise to be generous? Maybe. Or maybe it's not that easy. The research team still has many doubts about exactly how far-reaching these claims actually are.

"There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?" lead author Soyoung Park said.

The case for a generosity-happiness link seems strong and even if it’s not, nobody has ever become sadder by being generous.

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