Is Kindness Really Its Own Reward?

By Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas | June 1, 2008 | 0 comments

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.

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 
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 brainteaser@berkeley.edu.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

The Science of Happiness

Starts September 9, 2014 - Register Now!


The Science of Happiness

An unprecedented free online course exploring the roots of a happy, meaningful life. Co-taught by the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas. Up to 16 CE credit hours available.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

No Future Without Forgiveness By Desmond Tutu Tutu urges forgiveness as a way to peace, even in the wake of atrocities.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.

Dr. Christine Carter's blog on the science of raising happy kids.

» READ MORE
 

Sponsors

The Quality of Life Foundation logo Special thanks to

The Quality of Life Foundation for its support of the Greater Good Science Center

 
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement