How Generosity Increases Happiness
’Tis (always) the season for generosity and joy
It is better to give than receive, so goes the popular saying. And modern science demonstrates that, in many ways, it really is true! Generous people are happier, healthier, and live longer.
Standard economic theory says that we need a balance between what we give versus what we receive in order to be satisfied, let alone happy. Generosity doesn’t seem to have a place in such an equation. And yet, despite its seeming inconsistency with existing theories, generous behavior is common in the human experience.
Over the years, philosophers and psychologists have studied the matter from their different perspectives. They published numerous books, articles, and studies, across many cultures and age groups, showing that those who spend on others report feeling more happiness than those who spend on themselves. This research has solidified our understanding of the link between generosity and happiness, but has not often addressed the underlying mechanism of the connection.
One recent study by S. Q. Park et al, in Nature Communications, attempts to shed light on the mechanics of the neural processes linking generosity and happiness. Using functional MRI, they compared the brains of individuals who were planning to spend money on someone else (the experimental group), vs. the brains of people planning to spend money on themselves (the control group). They found that making generous choices activated the TPJ (temporal parietal junction) area of the brain; part of the system that regulates rewards in social situations. They also found a direct link between the activation of the TPJ and feelings of happiness, AND they found that activation was stronger in the experimental group compared to the control group. In brief, giving TO others made people happier than receiving FOR themselves.
Studies have also shown that happier people are more generous, so it becomes a cycle of giving, and joy. In addition to feeling happier, advantages of being generous include better health, reduced stress, and a stronger sense of purpose. Some studies even showed that being generous helps fight depression, and can help us live longer!
So, each day, as life presents you with opportunities to be generous, see which ones you can act on. Your temporal parietal junction, your stress hormones, and your community will thank you for it.
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill
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