Let’s be honest for a moment. You’d probably be thrilled to have a cool million or 2 in the bank. Money can’t buy happiness, as the saying goes, but what you do with your money (as well as time and talents, for that matter) might have an awful lot to do with your quality of life. Sure, doing something nice for someone else feels nice, but a recent study suggests that generosity has a positive biological effect on the brain.

For the study, published in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland told 50 people they would receive $100 over a few weeks. The team asked 25 of the individuals to use the money only on themselves, and asked the other 25 participants to spend it on someone they knew.

The researchers wanted to know: Would the mere promise to spend the money on someone else be enough to make people happier?

Before handing out the first batch of cash, the researchers brought those in the give-away group 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. Then, the participants underwent functional MRI scans so researchers could measure activity in 3 regions of the brain associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness, and decision-making.

Those who had pledged to spend the money on other people were more likely to make generous decisions throughout the duration of the experiment, the team found, compared to those who had pledged to spend the money on themselves.

The group’s MRI’s showed more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with altruism and happiness, and the participants expressed higher levels of happiness after the study ended.

Furthermore, it didn’t matter how generous people were. Even giving away a small amount of cash impacted the participants’ happiness in the same way.

Lead author Philippe Tobler, associate professor of neuroeconomics and social neuroscience, said:

“At least in our study, the amount spent did not matter. It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect – like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”

He added:

“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.” [2]

Co-author Soyoung Park says many questions remain unanswered. [3]

“There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? 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?”

Earlier studies have shown that older people who are generous tend to be in better physical shape. Some research has even suggested that spending money on other people is as effective as medication or exercise for lowering blood pressure. [1]

So the next time you feel like treating yourself, consider treating someone else instead. It might make you feel even better.

Tobler said:

“It is worth giving it a shot, even if you think it would not work. In order to reap health benefits, repeated practice is probably needed so that giving becomes second nature.”


[1] Time

[2] U.S. News & World Report

[3] Science Daily

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