Why Generosity Of Heart Is Good For You

Neuroeconomists in the University of Zurich have found that which some have been aware of for a long time and others find hard to believe: Those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement. In fact, merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier.

In collaboration with international researchers, Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich investigated how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling. The results provide insight into the connection 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. Just being a little more generous was enough.

Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people. They were willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else. The participants were asked about their happiness before and after the experiment. The givers also considered themselves happier after their generous behaviour (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: In the temporoparietal junction (where prosocial behaviour and generosity are processed), in the ventral striatum (which is associated with happiness), and 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. The researchers found that 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. Said researchers Philippe Tobler, “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented.”

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