Money can't buy happiness, but giving it away may

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Nature Communications

When people are generous, the brain areas linked with happiness light up, according to international researchers. Twenty five people were given money to spend on themselves, and 25 were given money to spend on other people. By monitoring brain activity, the researchers were able to answer a question that has flummoxed economic theorists: why would someone use their own resources to make other people happy? The activity in the study participants' brains provides an answer; giving makes the giver happy too.

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University of Lübeck, Germany
  • Health / Medical
  • Society / Lifestyle
Last updated: Tue 18 Jul 2017 Funder: Grant 0036/AB16 from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, grants PP00P1_128574, PP00P1_150739, 00014_165884 and CRSII3_141965 from the Swiss National Science Foundation and grants PA-2682/1-1 and INST 392/125-1 (Project C07 from SFB/TRR 134) from the German Research Foundation.

Media Release

From: Springer Nature

Neuroscience: Why giving makes you happy

People are often generous, even at a cost to themselves, and this could be because of a link between the brain areas activated when one is generous and those involved in happiness, suggests a paper published this week in Nature Communications.

Societies and cultures value generous behaviour, but this behaviour tends to involve investing one’s own resources to benefit another and so is hard to explain using standard economic theory. However, research has suggested that the motive for generous behaviour is the increased happiness with which it is associated.

To investigate the brain mechanisms that link generous behaviour with happiness, Soyoung Park and colleagues analysed brain activity in 50 participants performing a money-spending task. The participants were told that they would receive 25 Swiss Francs each week for four weeks. Half of the participants were told that this money was for themselves, and were asked to write down how they would spend it (for example, on a meal for themselves); the other half of the participants were told that the money was to be spent on somebody else, and were asked to write down how they would spend it (for example, taking a friend or partner out to dinner). The authors found that the participants who had committed to spending their money on others also behaved more generously in an independent task and had more activity in a particular brain area linked to the subjective feeling of happiness.

Taken together, the results of this study elucidate the brain regions that link commitment-induced generosity with happiness, suggesting a potential explanation for the question that defies logic: why be generous if it would be more beneficial to keep those resources for yourself? Now we know: because giving them away activates the brain in a way that makes you feel happier.

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