How Being Generous Helps Your Brain

Between hurricanes and earthquakes, the opportunities to be generous with time and money have been plentiful lately. New research offers a surprising reason to give.

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Posted in , Oct 12, 2017

Giving

We don’t need scientists to tell us that being generous—from sharing what we have with those who are less fortunate to investing time to help others—is a good thing, right? Especially at a time when natural disasters have struck both our country and our neighbors, donating needed items, money or volunteer hours stands out as a positive response to frightening events.

Although we might not need another reason to give, a small neurological study conducted by researchers at the University of Zurich has something to add to the long list of reasons why generosity is a worthy pursuit.

In a nutshell, generosity changes your brain.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, gave 50 men and women a little money once a week for a month. Half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on something for themselves; the other half were told to choose someone new they would spend the money on each week.

At the beginning of the study, all 50 participants were scanned using fMRI technology. Their brain activity was measured while they looked at different possible scenarios for spending the money on loved ones—at a personal cost. They told the researchers how they would choose to respond to each scenario—whether they would give the money to others or keep it for themselves.

At the end of the study, participants were asked to report on their moods on a number of measures related to happiness. The findings showed those who had been generous in the month-long study reported greater happiness than those who had agreed to spend the money on themselves. Even those who had opted for generosity in the hypothetical initial fMRI test reported greater happiness.

The results were not only based on self-reported mood, though. Among those participants who chose the generous option in the scenarios, the fMRI scans showed greater activity in the temporo-parietal junction or TPJ, a section of the brain linked with altruism. More notably, it also showed greater connection between the TPJ and the ventral striatum, the “reward center” of the brain.

So the act of giving—or even the act of choosing to give—is an investment not only in other’s well-being, but quite literally in our own emotional health.

What are some ways you give to others?

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