Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich’s Behavioral Economics Department set up an experiment to investigate how various areas in the brain communicate to produce these good feelings, in the hopes of providing insight into the connection between happiness and altruism.
The study’s 50 participants were promised a sum of money, to be received in a few weeks’ time, that they were to commit to spending in one of two ways: on someone they knew (the generosity test group), or on only themselves (the control group). All of the participants were then asked to make a series of decisions with regards to how the money would be divided, while researchers measured brain activity in three key areas: one in which prosocial behavior and generosity are processed; one associated with happiness; and the third area where the pros and cons of decision-making are weighed.
The participants were also asked about their level of happiness both before and after the experiment.
The results showed that the three key brain areas interacted differently in participants committed to generosity versus those committed to selfishness. Just the intention to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain, and intensified the interaction between it and the area associated with happiness.
The increased brain activity was supported by the participants’ responses regarding their level of happiness after the exercise. Those who committed to generous behaviour reporting feeling happier than they were before the exercise, as compared to the control group who committed to keeping the money for themselves.
Perhaps surprisingly, the degree of generosity didn’t have an influence on the increased feelings of contentment:
“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” says Philippe 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.”
Another related study conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia made similar findings of increased happiness following acts of giving, regardless of the degree of generosity. But their second finding was even more inspiring: the happier people feel about their past generous behaviour, the more likely they are in the present to repeat that generosity with others.
According to the second study’s authors, the results suggest a kind of ‘positive feedback loop’ between kindness and happiness, so that one encourages the other.
With the recent upsurge in popularity of the Pay it Forward and Random Acts of Kindness movements across the globe, it seems many of us aren’t waiting for researchers to tell us just how good being kind can feel.
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