Happiness is that elusive quality we all want more of. There’s tons of advice on how to find it—just check out these 26 quotes on the secret to happiness. But one thing is for sure: You can’t buy happiness, right? Well, as it turns out there’s actually a way that spending could bring you a smile. Based on new findings, scientists now believe that charitable giving, no matter how small, can make you happier.
Think back to the last time you helped someone out. Whether it was a friend or a stranger, it’s likely that your act of good, no matter how big or small, left you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. Thanks to the research of Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich, we’re now a little closer to understanding why it feels so good to give back. According to their research, those who are generous—or even promise to be generous—lead happier lives.
For their research, Tobler and Fehr looked at how and why our brains respond with a “warm glow” or pleasant feelings when we do something nice for someone else. As part of the study, 50 participants were told they would receive money and could spend it anyway they wanted. Half of the group pledged to spend money on someone they knew, while the other half said they would spend the money on themselves. (Learn why this powerful story will convince you stop saying “let me know if you need anything.”)
Researchers then monitored participants while they decided how much they would give to someone else, and how happy the idea of generosity made them. As the participants made choices regarding their giving or keeping, the researchers studied three areas of their brain where happiness (the ventral striatum), behavior (the temporoparietal junction), and decision-making (orbitofrontal cortex) occur. Brain activity differed between those who were planning to act generously and those who were acting selfishly. In the brains of generous people, the altruistic area of the brain demonstrated heightened activity causing increased activity in the ventral striatum area, and that increased feelings of happiness.
Based on the findings, Tobler and his team are saying that no matter how much one plans to give back, the act of just planning to be generous is enough to boost your mood. Participants who had promised to help others then felt even more buoyant after following through on their generosity.
“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” Tobler told Science Daily.
The researchers still have more questions for their future studies, but are saying that for now, “promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other.” They would like to find out if “communication between these brain regions can be trained and strengthened and, if so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”
If you’re looking for a boost of happiness or just want to give back, here are some ideas for helping others