Generosity makes people happier, say scientists who have found that even promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that gives us a pleasant feeling.
Researchers said that those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement.
Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioural economists call a warm glow.
Researchers, including those from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, investigated how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling.
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, researchers said.
“You do not need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” said Philippe Tobler from the University of Zurich.
Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people.
This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else.
They also considered themselves happier after their generous behaviour (but not beforehand) than the control group, who had committed to behaving generously towards themselves.
The researchers examined activity in three areas of the participants' brains: in the temporoparietal junction (where pro-social behaviour and generosity are processed), in the ventral striatum (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.
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.
“It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” said Tobler.
“Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behaviour, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other,” he said.
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.