The pleasure of giving starts in the brain

Gift flowers generousGifting flowers. Photo:

The pleasure of being generous starts in the brain

What motivates people to be generous? Social economists, psychologists and philosophers have pondered the question for hundreds of years.


Assuming that people are primarily motivated by self-interest, it seems illogical to voluntarily sacrifice in the interests of others.

In an effort to get an answer to this paradox, experts have put forward theories that it satisfies the need to rise in rank within a social group.

Others have suggested that strengthened cooperation and closer ties in tribal communities, and that this was the key to survival. Again, other explanatory models go towards people just giving because we are expecting to get something back.

But the real answer, according to a study that was presented on Tuesday, is far easier; giving makes us happy.

The good feeling

50 people have participated in an experiment at a laboratory in Zurich. The researchers asked the test subjects to describe the level of happiness after carrying out a generous act.

Consistently, the test subjects said that giving was an experience that gave a good feeling. Simultaneously, images taken using magnetic resonance imaging showed that there are connections in the brain between areas associated with generosity and areas related to happiness.

– In the study, we see evidence from behaviour and nervous system that supports the theory that there is a connection between generosity and happiness, the research team writes in the journal Nature Communications.

Participants in the study were promised 23 euros, or about 230 kroner, a week for a four week period.

Half were asked to spend money on other people, while the rest could spend the money on themselves. Neither of the participants received or actually used the money when it came to play.

Scanned the brain

After being committed to how to spend the money, participants were asked to answer questions while their mind was being scanned. The questions should indicate scenarios where the participants’ own interest is pitched against their generosity.

The researchers studied the activity in three areas of the brain: one associated with altruism and social behavior, another for happiness and a third to decision making.

The group who was willing to give away the money reported that they were happier than those who used the money on their own, found the researchers – even though they had not yet completed the action. The degree of happiness they reported was independent of which sum they were willing to spend.

Important in society

The findings are important for education, politics, economics and public health, the researchers believe.

– Generosity and happiness increase the individual’s sense of well-being and can help make progress in society, they write in the article.

– But in everyday life, people underestimate the connection between generosity and happiness, and thus the benefits of giving to others are overlooked, the article continues.

The question is whether communication between the different parts of the brain can be trained and strengthened, asks Soyoung Park from the University of Lübeck, who co-authored the study.

– Will the effect persist when used with overlay, ie, by a person acting only with generosity to achieve the good feeling? Park asks.

Another study that was presented Monday concluded that people from nature are geared to helping others, but only if it does not affect the existing social order.


© NTB Scanpix / Norway Today