People are often generous, even at a cost to themselves, and this could be because of a link between the brain areas activated when one is generous and those involved in happiness, suggests a paper published this week in Nature Communications.
Societies and cultures value generous behaviour, but this behaviour tends to involve investing one’s own resources to benefit another and so is hard to explain using standard economic theory. However, research has suggested that the motive for generous behaviour is the increased happiness with which it is associated.
To investigate the brain mechanisms that link generous behaviour with happiness, Soyoung Park and colleagues analysed brain activity in 50 participants performing a money-spending task. The participants were told that they would receive 25 Swiss Francs each week for four weeks. Half of the participants were told that this money was for themselves, and were asked to write down how they would spend it (for example, on a meal for themselves); the other half of the participants were told that the money was to be spent on somebody else, and were asked to write down how they would spend it (for example, taking a friend or partner out to dinner). The authors found that the participants who had committed to spending their money on others also behaved more generously in an independent task and had more activity in a particular brain area linked to the subjective feeling of happiness.
Taken together, the results of this study elucidate the brain regions that link commitment-induced generosity with happiness, suggesting a potential explanation for the question that defies logic: why be generous if it would be more beneficial to keep those resources for yourself? Now we know: because giving them away activates the brain in a way that makes you feel happier.