New research finds it may not be that hard to live a happier life — just try being more generous.
University of Zurich neuroeconomists discovered generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous.
People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy. Even merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier, say the researchers.
Nevertheless, what some have been aware of for a long time, is hard for others to believe.
That is, those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement. Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioral economists like to call a “warm glow.”
In the new study, Drs. Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich collaborated with international researchers to investigate how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling.
The results provide insight into the interplay between altruism and happiness.
In their experiments, the researchers found that people who behaved generously were happier afterwards than those who behaved more selfishly.
However, the amount of generosity did not influence the increase in contentment. “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” Tobler said.
Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people.
This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else. They also considered themselves happier after their generous behavior (but not beforehand) than the control group, who had committed to behaving generously toward themselves.
While the study participants were making their decision to behave or not to behave generously, the researchers examined activity in three areas of the participants’ brains.
The first area was in the temporoparietal junction (where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed), then the ventral striatum (which is associated with happiness), and finally in the orbitofrontal cortex (where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes).
These three brain areas interacted differently, depending on whether the study participants had committed to generosity or selfishness.
Simply promising to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain and intensified the interaction between this area and the area associated with happiness. “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” Tobler said.
“Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other,” he said.
Co-author Dr. Soyoung Park added, “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?”
At the beginning of the experiment, the 50 participants were promised a sum of money that they would receive in the next few weeks and were supposed to spend. They were also asked about their happiness.
Half of the study participants committed to spending the money on someone they knew (experimental group, promise of generosity), while the other half committed to spending the money on themselves (control group).
Subsequently, all of the study participants made a series of decisions concerning generous behavior, namely, whether to giving somebody who is close to them a gift of money. The size of the gift and the cost thereof varied: One could, for example, give the other person five francs at a cost of two francs. Or give 20 francs at a cost of 15.
While the study participants were making these decisions, the researchers measured activity in the three brain areas. Finally, the participants were once again asked about their happiness.
Source: University of Zurich