In March, an article in Science reported that people who spend more of their income on others are happier than people who spend more on themselves. Researchers found this to be true both for people they surveyed from the general population and among people they tested in a laboratory, where participants who were told to buy a gift for someone else reported feeling happier than people told to spend money on personal items.
Research from neuroscience suggests these people aren’t just saying their generosity feels good because they think they’re supposed to. Instead, studies have shown that the psychological rewards of kindness are reflected in the neural circuitry of the brain.
No study has directly measured brain activity in people who spend on others vs. those who spend on themselves. However, previous research has identified regions of the brain—the ventral striatum, the nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, and parts of the frontal cortex—that activate when people experience pleasure. In a study published last year, University of Oregon researchers showed that charitable giving made these “feel-good” parts of people’s brains light up, particularly when the giving was totally voluntary. The authors believe this is almost literal evidence of a “warm glow,” that pleasant feeling we get from doing something nice for someone else.
Another study, published in 2006, got similar results. When researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes looked at participants’ brain activity, they found that charitable giving produced the same signs of pleasure and reward as receiving a monetary gift. Giving also triggered activity in the anterior prefrontal regions, located in the front-most parts of the brain, which are known to light up when we think about moral issues.
What’s more, the researchers found that when participants made their charitable donations, the activity in these “moral processing” areas of the brain was greater among people who volunteered more in real life. According to the study’s authors, this suggests that practicing moral behavior strengthens the connection between the “moral” and the “reward” areas of the brain, making it more likely that altruism will feel good in the future.
Together, these findings suggest that giving to others can be inherently rewarding, paying dividends in its own special currency: warm glows and feelings of happiness.
About The Author
Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Her Brain Teaser column addresses popular questions, myths, and misconceptions about the neurobiological roots of human behavior and emotion. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.