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Small acts of giving can make you (and your brain) happier

Small acts of giving make for a happier brain.

We’ve all been told that it is better to give than to receive, but is that really true? New research published in the journal Nature Communications shows that even small acts of giving can increase your brain’s happiness quotient.

Although studies show that those who give to others tend to be happier overall, researchers have struggled to explain why acts of generosity might lead to a better mood. Indeed, economists and scarcity theorists often argue that the perception of limited time and money make people more inclined to want more and give less.

An international team of scientists decided to tackle the question why giving makes us happy by looking at how the brain processes giving behavior. A total of 50 participants were randomly assigned to either a “giving” (25) or a “non-giving” group. All were told that they would receive a weekly sum of money.

Those in the “giving” group were asked to pledge to spend this money on others for 4 weeks, while those in the “non-giving” group were told to spend the money on themselves.

Everyone then underwent a series decision-making tasks while undergoing a brain scan in an fMRI. The tasks involved identifying someone that they would like to give a present to, then making a series of decisions about whether or not to share their resources by accepting or rejecting a series of financial gain and loss scenarios.

The researchers defined “generosity” as the proportion of time a person was willing to give to the other at a personal cost. Individuals also completed a questionnaire about their level of happiness.

As expected, most people were more inclined to be generous when the benefits to the other person increased while their personal costs decreased. But there were differences. Individuals in the “giving” group who had committed to spending money on others were significantly more generous than “non-giving” controls. Giving group members also reported being happier than control group members.

Generosity and the brain

In addition to looking at the relation between giving and happiness, the researchers were able to pinpoint specific brain regions that “lit up” while contemplating generous behavior. Previous studies find that the brain’s tempero-parietal junction is activated while contemplating generous decisions.

As expected, participants in the “giving” group, who had made a public pledge to share with another, showed significant tempero-parietal junction activity while performing the generosity task compared to “non-giving” controls. In addition, brain regions linked to feeling good, the ventral striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex, "lit up" when someone was being generous. In other words, those who shared with others had brain activation consistent with being rewarded and feeling happy, whereas those who kept the money for themselves did not.

It doesn’t take much generosity to feel good

This study also came with its share of surprises. First, the amount of generosity displayed was not directly linked to the magnitude of a person’s happiness. Even small acts of kindness could elicit a big reward.

Second, participants were able to bask in the feel-good glow of giving just by making a verbal commitment to share with another. This suggests that even the thought of behaving altruistically may prime us to share our resources with others.

Although it probably seems like a no brainer that giving to others would make you feel good, it’s nice to know that your mind, brain and mood are also reaping benefits while you are making someone else’s day.


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