It has long been acknowledged that acts of generosity raise levels of happiness and emotional well-being, giving charitable people a pleasant feeling known, in behavioral economics, as a "warm glow." But so far, no studies have investigated the mechanics behind the correlation between altruism and happiness.
Recently, Profs. Phillipe Tobler and Ernst Fehr, both from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland - in collaboration with other international researchers - conducted a study aiming to gain a better understanding of what goes on inside a person's brain when they decide whether or not to perform a generous act.
Their article features in the current issue of Nature Communications.
Generosity is costly, yet beneficial
The premise of the study is that generosity is not necessarily an intuitive choice, as any selfless act comes at a personal cost. When we do something for someone else, we typically give away some of our personal resources, such as time, energy, or money.
Still, people choose to act generously despite these costs, and that choice is probably explained, as the researchers suggest, by the motivation provided by the anticipation of the "warm glow."
The researchers set out to investigate the neural "map" of the correspondence between generous acts and increased levels of happiness, pointing out that this sort of endeavor is a first in the field.
Other studies, they explain, have looked at the neural "makeup" of generosity and happiness separately, associating each with different regions of the brain. Research has linked altruism and the performance of charitable acts to activity in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), where the temporal and parietal lobes come together.
Happiness has been linked to an activation of the ventral striatum, which has been shown to play a role in the brain's reward system, giving us that feeling of satisfaction when we perform a pleasant activity.
The researchers from UZH and their colleagues decided to test for possible interactions between these two brain regions in the case of people performing generous acts. To monitor brain activity, they used functional MRI (fMRI).
The decision to give makes us happier
Forty-eight people participated in this study, all of whom were allocated a sum of money on a weekly basis for 4 weeks. The participants were also randomly split into two equal groups.
One group constituted the experimental strand, and its members were assigned to perform acts of generosity toward others. They were asked to make a public pledge to be generous, thus ensuring their commitment to the idea. The other group was the control group, whose members were told to spend the money on themselves.
All participants were asked to report their level of happiness both at the beginning and at the end of the experiment.
After making the public pledge, all the participants were asked to perform certain tasks while undergoing fMRI. They were prompted to make choices related to generous behavior by deciding whether or not they would offer a gift of money to someone.
Each time, a cost to themselves was also specified alongside the total value of the gift. Both the value of the gift and the size of the cost varied.
It was found that participants in the experimental group were likelier to choose the gifts most beneficial to others that came at a larger cost to themselves - that is, they were more charitable and self-sacrificing than the participants in the control group.
It was also found that all participants who had performed, or had been willing to perform, an act of generosity - no matter how small - viewed themselves as happier at the end of the experiment.
"You don't need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice," says Prof. Tobler.
The neural underpinnings
As for the neural mechanisms, the study confirmed the researchers' initial hypothesis that the ventral striatum and the TPJ interacted when generous behavior was displayed. They noted that the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked with decision-making, was also involved.
The researchers have expressed their enthusiasm about these findings, stating that their newfound knowledge might provide ways of reinforcing generous behavior with the promise of a happier life.
Nevertheless, they acknowledge that many considerations remain unexplored and would benefit from further study.
"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?"
Study co-author Dr. Soyoung Q. Park, University of Lübeck, Germany