Did you ever notice that doing something for others makes you feel good? Study shows that giving actually makes us HAPPY. Let’s look at the neuroscience behind the ‘helper’s high’ and find out if some people are more altruistic than others.
Altruism In The Brain
Okay, so giving makes us feel good. Why is that? In order to find out, we need to look at how our brain works.
The nucleus accumbens is a region in the brain that plays an important role in the brain’s rewards circuit. Study shows that when participants donated money, the activity in the nucleus accumbens spiked. This brain region is activated by dopamine (which promotes desire) and serotonin (which promotes inhibition and satiety). When we perform reward-related behavior, like eating great food, this leads to an increase in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens. As a result, we do not only feel GOOD but also want to do it AGAIN!
Altruistic behavior does not only have an effect on dopamine, but also on endorphins and oxytocin. Giving promotes the release of endorphins in the brain, producing that great feeling known as the helper’s high. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’, plays a major role in social interaction. Oxytocin is also released when we give. This in turn leads to a reduction of social fears and increased social bonding.
Giving Makes Us Happy: The Proof
Now that we know the neuroscience behind it, let’s look into what psychological researchers have to say about the link between giving and happiness.
Remember that the release of dopamine not only makes us feel great, but also leads to us wanting to repeat this behavior? A study by Columbia University found that people who give to others are more likely to do it AGAIN. They described a positive feedback loop between altruism and happiness: when you experience happiness as a result of giving, we’re more likely to give again.
Harvard professor Michael Norton and professor of Psychology Elizabeth Dunn also studied this topic. They concluded that giving money to others increased participants’ happiness MORE than spending it on themselves. Generosity is strongly associated with well-being. Research shows that people who volunteer regularly have better mental health and increased longevity. Some researchers claim that the benefits of volunteering are greater than exercising – in fact, even greater than giving up smoking.
Do we have to spend big or give a lot of our time to notice the benefits of giving?
No! Kathryn Buchanan & Anat Bardi studied the influence of small daily acts of kindness on life satisfaction. They asked participants to perform a small act of kindness for 10 days. They found that their happiness was boosted significantly, even after ONLY 10 days.
So, why do we give? Is it all just about feeling good and happy, or is there more to the story?
Daryl Van Tongeren concluded that people who engage in altruistic behavior reported a greater sense of purpose, or ‘meaning’ in their lives. In The Psychology Of Minimalism: Will Dumping Your Junk Make You Happier? we already discussed that according to Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, ultimate happiness is achieved when we derive most of our joy from having meaning in our lives.
Conclusion: giving leads to experiencing meaning in your life which leads to happiness.
Are We All Altruistic?
So, are we all altruistic beings or are some MORE altruistic than others? Scientists have studied this topic by looking at regions in the brain associated with altruistic behavior. They concluded that some people are indeed more altruistic.
Yosuke Morishima from the University of Zurich studied the right temporoparietal junction. This region has been linked to moral judgement. They gave particpants a sum of money and asked them to share or not share a portion of this with a stranger. It was their choice. They found a clear link between the volume of gray matter in this region and the level of altruism someone showed.
Psychology researchers and car crash survivor Abigail Marsh studied altruism by looking at the amygdala. She studied both extraordinary altruists and psychopaths, which are opposites in terms of compassion and the desire to help others. Extraordinary altruists have done things like give a healthy kidney to a complete stranger. Marsh found that extraordinary altruists have an amygdala that is around 8% larger than average and functions differently:
“They are better at recognizing other people’s fear. They’re literally better at detecting when somebody else is in distress. This may be in part because their amygdala is more reactive to these expressions. And remember, this is the same part of the brain that we found was underreactive in people who are psychopathic.”
We can conclude that not everyone is as altruistic, caring and generous as the next person. But what we CAN conclude is that altruistic behavior does lead to more happiness.
To whom will you give today?
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