The key to true happiness is, according to a recent study, giving. But is it really that simple?

Being generous, according to this study*, leads to measurable changes in brain activity and neural connectivity in specific regions associated with happiness.

Fifty subjects were divided into two groups. Each group (which ended up being 24 subjects due to exclusions) was told they would be receiving 25 Swiss francs a week over the upcoming four weeks.

One group agreed to spend the money on someone else such as buying another person dinner or a gift and the individuals in the other group was to spend it on themselves.

There was also a cost-benefit assigned to the giving group–for a certain amount they spent on others, for example to give a gift worth 18 francs the subject might have to spend 25 francs. Other participants in the giving group were able to “spend” less to give more.

The subjects were then told to make decisions about the way in which they’d spend the money and then were followed up with in the ensuing weeks. (You can read a more detailed account of the experiment.)

In this study, the changes in the brain showed that

“Generous decisions engage the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) in the experimental more than in the control group and differentially modulate the connectivity between TPJ and ventral striatum. Importantly, striatal activity during generous decisions is directly related to changes in happiness. These results demonstrate that top–down control of striatal activity plays a fundamental role in linking commitment-induced generosity with happiness.” Park, S. Q. et al. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nat. Commun. 8, 15964 doi: 10.1038/ncomms15964 (2017).

The researches found “greater TPJ activity for generous choices and generosity-related connectivity of the TPJ with striatal happiness regions…” Ibid.

This isn’t the first study that shows that generosity/giving lead to happiness. But other activities lead to happiness, too, right?

Healthy Happy, Not Healthy Happy

In How to Get Totally Happy at the Cellular Level we cite a study which describes the effects of two primary types of happiness, hedonic  happiness (hedonistic or pleasure-seeking based happiness) and eudaimonic (happiness from a noble cause, such as generosity/giving.)

What’s so compelling about this study is that it shows that eudaimonic happiness led to a significant decrease in the stress-related response in human immune cells, and  hedonic happiness led to a significant increase in stress-related responses in the same kind of cells. These hedonic-related stress responses included an increase in inflammation and a decrease in anti-viral protection. In other words, selfish happiness might weaken your immune system.

For someone with depression, happiness seems so elusive, not something one change choose. And the truth is that the symptoms of clinical depression themselves thwart happiness-inducing choices and behaviors. But when someone is in remission from depression, or who doesn’t have depression but just isn’t feeling particularly happy or fulfilled, it might be the time to begin to accumulate an armory of happiness-inducing thoughts, behaviors, and habits.

We often recommend volunteering as a first step to happiness to clients, interns, and staff members. Cultivating mindful attachment versus the popular but we believe incomplete approach of non-attachment is an important part of recovery from mental illness or even just feeling blah. In Enlightenment: Thinking About Attachment we wrote that “volunteerism and actively engaging with and working with others in need or not, can bring a different kind of enlightenment.”

12-step programs such as AA put this into practice with their sponsorship program in which one AA member who is really working the program and in a strong place in the recovery process, supports someone else as they work through recovery. In other words, those who are able, help others who’ve been through what they’ve been through.

And those who aren’t able? I still encourage everyone to seek an appropriate form/level of volunteerism because it is an integral part of their recovery from mental illness or addiction (or both.)

So someone with mild depression might be encouraged to volunteer a few times a week at a program for the elderly or disabled, or other structured program, whereas someone with a more challenging issue might be encouraged to try one hour a week in a structured program.

Someone with severe depression or other mental illness, can still give. Taking care of a pet, helping a neighbor carry their groceries, even watering a plant are all important parts of psychiatric rehabilitation. In other words, social skills especially those that involve giving of oneself, are recognized as key to healing.

Simple? In A Challenging Way, Yes

So, is the answer to being happy really so simple?

There’s a teaching from the Jewish tradition that in the next world we have a greater range of vision and we can see that each mitzvah (commandment/good deed) we accomplish appears to be an incredible mountain that we’ve climbed with laborious steps. But, those we didn’t accomplish, or shied away from, are shown to us as requiring one slight step.

What’s perhaps so interesting about many of these studies is that the good deeds–the generous giving, the volunteering, and so on–all require recipients. Other people. Relationships. Sitting and meditating on a mountain might feel good, but climbing that mountain is good for mind, body and soul.


*Park, S. Q. et al. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nat. Commun. 8, 15964 doi: 10.1038/ncomms15964 (2017).