For centuries, spiritual leaders and philosophers have viewed generosity as the key to happiness. “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up,” wrote John Holmes, the late poet and critic. However, the link between happiness and generosity is no longer just a theory. A University of Zurich study offers scientific proof that generous behavior can give you a happier life.
In the study, conducted by Ernst Fehr and Philippe Tobler, in conjunction with a team of international researchers, 50 participants were promised varied sums of money that they’d receive in the near future. The control group committed to spending the money on themselves, while the other subjects chose to spend it on others.
While the study subjects made their decisions, Fehr and Tobler studied activity in three parts of the brain — the ventral striatum (which controls happiness), the temporoparietal junction (which processes generosity), and the orbitofrontal cortex (which regulates the decision-making process).
The areas of the brain associated with generosity and happiness interacted more intensely in those who chose to give the money to others. And this result was consistent regardless of the amount of money being given. It’s also important to note this neural activity intensified with just the promise of giving away the money — not with the act itself. However, those who went through with the generous act also felt happier afterward.
The study shows that generosity truly is enough to boost personal happiness, and that generosity doesn’t need to border on martyrdom to be effective. Helping others, in any way that we can, is enough to lead us toward a brighter tomorrow.
Soyoung Q. Park, Thorsten Kahnt, Azade Dogan, Sabrina Strang, Ernst Fehr, Philippe N. Tobler. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nature Communications, 2017; 8: 15964 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15964