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How generosity changes your brain

Money can buy happiness — if you spend it on others, research suggests.

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Key Takeaways
  • In recent decades, a growing body of research has revealed that giving to others produces numerous psychological and physiological benefits.
  • The exact neural mechanisms underlying this remain unclear, but it seems that the process involves mammalian systems related to reward, social attachment, and aversion.
  • A new episode of “Your Brain on Money” explores why giving is beneficial and offers strategies to make giving a habit.

Imagine you’re really selfish. How should you spend your resources to maximize your happiness?

Instead of buying more stuff for yourself, research suggests that giving to people or causes you care about is more likely to do the trick. Giving not only helps others, but it also rewards yourself in measurable ways, so much so that it may even increase your lifespan. People seem to understand this intuitively.

“When we tell people, ‘Hey, did you know that giving to other people can make you happy?’ most people are not blown away,” Michael Norton, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told Big Think. “They understand. They’ve had [charitable] experiences that make them happy.”

However, it’s harder to understand why giving makes us happy. That’s partly because receiving money feels rewarding, too, and also because certain approaches to giving seem to be more effective than others — both in terms of making us feel good and helping us to make giving a habit.

The benefits of giving

A growing body of research has revealed numerous psychological and physiological benefits of giving, challenging common conceptions about the relationship between money and happiness. In 2008, for example, Norton and his colleagues conducted a study where they gave $5 or $20 to people and then instructed them to spend it either on themselves or someone else.

Later that evening, the researchers checked in with the participants to see how they felt emotionally. The group that gave money to others reported feeling happier over the course of the day. What’s more, the results showed no emotional difference between people who received $5 and those who got $20.

In another part of the study, the researchers described this experiment to a separate group of participants and asked them to predict which group would feel happier. They got it wrong, suggesting that “people’s daily spending choices may be guided by flawed intuitions about the relationship between money and happiness,” wrote Norton and colleagues in a paper describing the study.

Other research has shown:

Volunteering boosts health. Elderly people who volunteer are 44 percent less likely to die over a 5-year period than those who don’t. Volunteering seems to be intrinsically rewarding: other research has explored whether its benefits could be explained by other factors, such as the possibility that people who volunteer are naturally happier or healthier. The results found that volunteering boosts well-being no matter one’s baseline.

Giving produces a “warm glow.” Literally. Research has shown that prosocial behavior can cause body temperature to rise. More broadly, warm-glow giving describes a phenomenon where people feel pleasure when they spend money on others. Originally introduced as an economic model that framed giving as a good but selfish act, the phenomenon has since been studied by scientists, who generally agree that giving releases feel-good neurochemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. The “helper’s high” is a similar concept.

The exact neural processes that underlie the benefits of giving remain unclear. But a 2006 fMRI study provided some of the first hard evidence showing that giving involves a complex interplay between several brain regions, including the mesolimbic reward system and the decision-making prefrontal cortex. The researchers wrote that “human altruism draws on general mammalian neural systems of reward, social attachment, and aversion.”

Giving may alleviate depression. It’s hard, if not counterproductive, to ease depression by focusing on the self, research suggests. Giving shifts focus toward the needs of others. Studies have found that volunteers are less likely to be depressed and that engaging in compassionate acts can have long-lasting protective effects against depression.

The benefits of giving seem to be universal. A 2013 study found a positive relationship between giving and happiness in 120 out of 136 countries, after controlling for income and other variables. The relationship was strong in a majority of those nations. What’s more, the benefits were observed even among people who struggle financially.

Why do we give?

Our predisposition to giving seems rooted in evolution. Compared to other animals, humans spend a long time developing from babies to toddlers to kids who can, more or less, fend for themselves. During these vulnerable developmental stages, we only survive because of help from our family and sometimes our community. In general, we’re hardwired to care for the vulnerable.

But does that conflict with Charles Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest”? Not necessarily. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that humans are highly social creatures with an “almost ever-present instinct of sympathy” that we acquired over time “for the good of the community.”

More recently, scientists have proposed the idea that natural selection occurs on the individual and group level. Under the group-selection framework, a group probably wouldn’t be very fit — and therefore probably wouldn’t survive long — if its members weren’t willing to sacrifice for each other once in a while.

Within evolutionary science, a large body of research has proposed various mechanisms hypothesizing how and why humans evolved to be altruistic. But no matter the exact reasons, what’s clear is that scientists are able to see the positive effects that giving has on the brain. Those results also help give clues as to which giving strategies are most effective.

How to make giving a habit

Much of our spending habits are rooted in the pursuit of happiness. But while spending on yourself can produce a bit of happiness, research suggests it pales in comparison to the psychological and physiological benefits of spending on others. So, how can you change your spending habits to help yourself and others?

First, it doesn’t seem to matter much where you are spending your resources or whether you are donating time or money. Norton told Big Think he suspects giving time is probably more beneficial to yourself. The problem: time is often harder to give than money.

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“If you can’t give time, the idea is that at least you can give money so that you’re being generous with at least one of your resources,” Norton said.

No matter what you’re donating, it’s probably a good idea to give toward things that align with your values. After all, research suggests that one of the reasons giving is psychologically beneficial is because it provides us a sense of meaning and purpose. So, should you set up automatic donations to a particular cause and then forget about it?

Not exactly. Norton noted that you’re more likely to reap the benefits of giving — and to make it habitual — when you are conscious of the act. One way to do that is by conducting a self-audit of your spending habits. For example, you could look at your monthly credit card statements and categorize your spending into categories such as money spent on yourself, yourself and others, and others.

“We do see that when people stick to auditing themselves, they do in fact change their spending in line with their goals,” Norton told Big Think. “In one sense, we want it to become automatic and mindless, you know, setting up recurring payments so that your credit card audit looks better. Sometimes, what that does take out is the thinking and the feeling of it.”

Ultimately, one of the easiest ways to change your spending habits could be to use a selfish framework. The next time you feel an urge to buy, say, a new pair of shoes you don’t really need, consider why you want to buy them. If it’s to make yourself happier, your money would be better spent elsewhere. Perhaps on someone else.


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