How the Brain Links Generosity and Happiness

Sometimes the best way to make yourself happy is to make others happy. Recently, an international team of researchers made some progress in zeroing in on why this may be the case.

In their study, the researchers divided participants up into two groups. Then they started handing out cash.

In one of the groups, people pledged to spend a certain amount of the money on themselves in the coming month. In the other group, people promised to spend the money on other people.

Now, I’ll admit that my first thought when I read this was hey, I’d love to participate in a study where scientists throw money at me and make me promise to spend it on myself!

And it’s true, the people in the self-spending group certainly didn’t mind having to treat themselves to a nice dinner in the name of scientific progress. But it turns out that it’s the people who had to spend the money on others who got the best deal.

It was those who pledged to spend the money on other people who reported the greatest increases in happiness. On top of that, the simple act of being given money and told to spend it on others made these people more generous in other ways, at least temporarily. Specifically, these people ended up making more generous choices in a separate decision-making task that they completed as part of the study.

Maybe the most interesting part of the study, though, came when researchers looked at what was going on in the participants’ brains as they made generous (or non-generous) decisions. It turned out that how much happiness people derived from making generous decisions was related to neural activity in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain associated with reward.

On top of that, the researchers found that among people who’d been assigned to spend money on others, an area of the brain called the temporo-parietal junction, or TPJ for short, was more active. And, in turn, the connection between the TPJ and the ventral striatum (the part associated with rewards) was stronger in people with a tendency to make more generous decisions.

Together, these findings suggest that people who pledged to spend money on others were literally learning to associate generosity and happiness, and the results show some of the neural pathways involved in that learning process. We already know that performing acts of generosity can make people happy, and we may be getting close to the day when we know why.

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