This is your brain on generosity

It’s what researchers call a “cross-cultural universal.” That means no matter where you live, what your income, age, your culture, or even your politics, generous people are, in general, healthier and happier.

The mechanisms for it are built into our brains!

Generous givers of time and money suffer less from stress and depression, have better overall heart health and better immune systems and even live longer. Intentional philanthropy that is motivated by compassion is strongly associated with better overall health and delayed mortality, according to research by the Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkley. Not only that, people who give of their time have greater self-esteem and vitality.

The converse is also true. Though many religions have taught for centuries that materialism is bad spiritual practice and harmful to overall well-being, research in the last 30 years has begun to prove it. Materialism – the practical opposite of generosity – is associated with lower levels of personal well-being, poor health, and even damage to the well-being of others and to the environment. Researcher Tim Kasser of Knox College says:

Because materialism is also negatively associated with pro-social and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, a strong focus on such aims is likely to undermine the well-being of other people, other species, and future generations.*

Psychologist Liz Dunn of the University of British Columbia led a study in which participants were handed a small sum of  money and told that they could keep it or give it to someone else.

Unsurprisingly, they found that the more money people gave away, the happier they felt. Conversely, the more money people kept for themselves, the more they experienced shame and the higher their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a link between stress and disease, causing wear and tear on the body. And, Dunn says, it may be “just the first hint of [a] kind of missing link between generosity and health.

Cortisol may be just the first hint of a kind of missing link between generosity and health.

But the truth is, there are seemingly endless connections between our bodies and generosity, and it starts in our brains. It seems we are wired for generosity.

The science behind generous brains

Picture shows the ventral striatum, the frontal lobe (the home of the orbitofrontal cortex). Not labeled is the TPJ (tempero-parietal junction), which is the area where the temporal and parietal lobes meet and where cognitive processing of emotion takes place.

In 2017, scientists from Northwestern University, along with researchers from the University of Zurich launched the first study to examine what happens in people’s brains during a generous act. They looked especially at generous acts that were selfless and involved some personal cost of time, energy, or money.

Because happiness and generosity have been associated with separate areas of the brain, the researchers sought to determine, by use of functional MRI (fMRI), if there is interaction between these areas of the brain during a generous behavior and, if so, to map it.

In fact there is a connection.

Participants in their study were given roughly the equivalent of $25 U.S. dollars weekly over four weeks. One group (the generous group) was asked to think about how they would spend the money on others. The other group (the selfish group) was asked to think about how they would spend it on themselves.

The generous were assigned generous acts they would perform for other people. They were also asked to make a public pledge of generosity, to ensure their commitment. The selfish group was instructed to spend the money on themselves. Both groups were surveyed about the level of happiness they felt at the beginning and at the end of the experiment.

Immediately following the first test, participants were given another assignment while inside an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity during the task. They were asked to make quick decisions about whether or not they would give money to a particular person under specific circumstances – at some personal cost to themselves. The size of the gift and the cost to the giver varied.

During the experiment, researchers identified three areas of the brain interacting as generous behavior took place: The temperoparietal junction (associated with empathy, altruism, and other pro-social behaviors), the ventral striatum (involved in reward processing, motivation and decision-making) and the orbitofrontal cortext (involved in decision-making, managing emotions, and thinking about the future).

Just the idea of future generosity, along with the commitment, seemed to make a difference – even before any actual generous act had taken place!

Other findings? Researchers found that public pledges of generosity increased generosity and the happiness associated with it. “The behavioural and neural changes induced by this method are striking, considering that participants had neither received nor spent any money at the time of the experiment,” the research team reported. Just the idea of future generosity, along with the commitment, seemed to make a difference – even before any actual generous act had taken place!

This is just the beginning of research on this subject. Much remains to be learned about how this knowledge may be used in the future. But it does stand to substantially bolster the connection between generosity, our brains, and our well-being.

* Kasser, T. (2018). Materialism and living well. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers.

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