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What happens in your brain when you give time or money? Altruism is often framed as an act performed for the sake of someone else without the expectation of a reward. Author Jenni Santi and psychology professor Michael Norton explain that there is more happening on a biological level than we realize.
In the 2000s, experiments by neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman showed that two areas of the brain light up when we volunteer or help someone. These same “pleasure centers” are activated when we think of food or romantic partners.
All forms of giving are good, Norton says, but time (i.e. volunteering) is the resource that is often seen as the hardest to spare. He offers tips for those looking to give more or more consistently, including a self-audit to assess and ultimately change spending habits.
MICHAEL NORTON: There’s a cynical view of people that they are really self-centered and selfish and all they care about is themselves and they would never help anybody with anything unless they’re forced to. And it’s true that sometimes people are self-centered and selfish, of course. But when you think about the world, there’s amazing, amazing generosity happening all the time. We just don’t always build it into our sense of what people are like.
NARRATOR: There’s a good amount of giving in the world, but wouldn’t we be happier spending on ourselves instead?
MICHAEL: What’s surprising is that we still think that the next thing that we buy for ourselves is gonna really make us happy. What we try to show is that some of the things that we’re spending on now just aren’t doing much for us and we can think about spending on different things and try to get a little bit more happiness out of that aspect of our lives.
NARRATOR: Could changing the way we spend money and giving more to others really make us happier? This is Your Brain on Money. This is Michael Norton. He studies human behavior at Harvard, and co-wrote a book called Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.
MICHAEL: When we tell people, “Hey, did you know that giving to other people can make you happy?”, most people are not blown away. They understand, they’ve had experiences that make them happy, they understand the concept, but it doesn’t occur to us that often to give instead of getting stuff for ourselves. And so it has to be a habit of mind that we encourage ourselves to give more often than we do. That feeling of having done something that counts in the world is one of the key predictors of why giving can pay off in more happiness.
NARRATOR: We know generosity can be rewarding, but what’s really happening when we give time or money to others? This is Jenny Santi. She’s worked for years in philanthropy and is the author of the book, The Giving Way to Happiness.
JENNY SANTI: When we help someone, we get a feeling of elation. It’s basically nature’s way of rewarding us. Kind of like the feeling we get when we run and we feel good, we feel happy. It’s the same for when we help others.
NARRATOR: Science has shown that our brain releases rewarding chemicals when we exercise,
but can the same be true for simply giving? In 2006, Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman, both neuroscientists at national institutes of health, developed an experiment to measure our neuroactivity when we give.
JENNY: Grafman and Moll’s experiments in the 2000s provide the very first evidence that the joy of giving has biological basis in the brain.
NARRATOR: Subjects were given a pool of money they were allowed to keep. A computer then gave them a series of causes that they could either donate to or keep the money instead. As they made their decisions, their brain activity was recorded by FMRI.
JENNY: Turns out, there are two rewards centers of the brain that light up when people give. And these are the pleasure centers of the brain. These areas are called the midbrain VTA as well as the subgenual area, the same parts of the brain that light up when there’s food, or when we think of romantic partners. These experiments suggest, for the first time, we have evidence of the biological basis of the joy of giving.
NARRATOR: If generosity is more reward than sacrifice, how can we all experience the joy of giving?
MICHAEL: One question that people often ask is where should I give to a charity? Should I give to a close friend or a family member or someone on the street who’s in need? The short answer is all of them are good. So, any kind of giving that you do, again, is gonna be better than spending on yourself…
To read the full transcript, please visit https://bigthink.com/giving-to-charity/