It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to know that doing nice things for people feels good. But now, researchers say they've discovered that even thinking about doing something generous has real mood-boosting benefits in the brain.
In a new study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland told 50 people they'd be receiving about $100 over a few weeks. Half of the people were asked to commit to spending that money on themselves, and half were asked to spend it on someone they knew.
The researchers wanted to see whether simply pledging to being generous was enough to make people happier. So before doling out any money, they brought everyone into the lab and asked them to think about a friend they'd like to give a gift to and how much they would hypothetically spend. They then performed functional MRI scans to measure activity in three regions of the brain associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness and decision-making.
Their choices—and their brain activity—seemed to depend on how they had pledged to spend the money earlier. Those who had agreed to spend money on other people tended to make more generous decisions throughout the experiment, compared to those who had agreed to spend on themselves. They also had more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with altruism and happiness, and they reported higher levels of happiness after the experiment was over.