ZURICH, Switzerland — The ego can get in the way of many life aspects, even happiness. And when it comes to people who lead happier lives, a recent study finds that those who are generous are most content.
Researchers at Zurich University say that the brain basks in what behavioral economists describe as a “warm glow” when participating in an act of kindness towards others. The authors sought to find out exactly what causes this pleasant sensation.
The research team recruited 50 healthy adults (39 women, 11 men) for the study. Participants were promised money, for which they’d receive over the course of a two-week period and they were required to spend the cash. Half of the participants were tasked with spending the money on someone other than themselves, while the other half committed to spending the money solely on themselves.
All participants expressed that they did give thought to using the money on someone close to them. The amount that each participant wanted to give varied, but as they pondered on the sum, researchers continued to conduct research. Activities in three brain areas were monitored — regions that controlled prosocial behavior and generosity, levels of happiness, and the decision-making process in individuals. The researchers discovered these areas worked differently when people used their money on others versus themselves.
After the experiment, participants were asked about their state of happiness. The researchers found that those who acted more generously reported feeling happier, compared to those who acted selfishly. Interestingly, spending more money on other people didn’t necessarily make an individual any happier than someone who spent less.
“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” says study co-author Philippe Tobler in a release.
In fact, the authors noticed while monitoring brain activity that the portion of the experiment in which participants simply thought about being generous sparked activity in the area of the brain that stimulates happiness.
“It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” says Tobler. “Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other.”
In future research, the authors suggest it would be prudent to discover how the effect changes, if at all, if a person decides to perform an act of kindness or generosity simply for the sake of enjoying that so-called warm glow.
“There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how?” asks co-author Soyoung Park. “And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”
This study’s findings were published in July 2017 in the journal Nature Communications.