The power of generosity to boost well-being, not just generate warm feelings, is backed by a fair amount of science, but the "why" is still difficult to pin down. Now a new study has more specifically identified how different sorts of generosity affect the brain. As it turns out, one type seems to have an especially potent effect, with evidence suggesting that it’s an anti-anxiety elixir in addition to delivering good feels.
Researchers tested two types of generosity, which they termed “targeted” and “untargeted.” Untargeted generosity is what most of us do when we donate to charities or otherwise act generously toward those who are part of an impersonal group. Targeted generosity focuses on those that we know need help, whether we know them personally or not – in other words, it’s generosity toward particular faces out of the crowd.
To test the effects of both types of generosity, the research team conducted two experiments. In the first, they told 45 participants that their performance on a specific task would result in winning raffle tickets for a $200 prize. Each time they completed the task, they were told they were “playing” to win the money for three different causes: toward someone they personally know is in need, for a charity, or for themselves.
After each play-to-win session, the participants’ brains were scanned via fMRI while they did another task designed to assess their emotional response. The brain imaging turned up a few expected results and one that was significantly unexpected.
The expected result, also seen in previous studies, was that both targeted and untargeted generosity increased activity in two areas of the brain linked to altruism, the septal area and the ventral striatum, which are also linked to parents caring for their young in humans and other mammals. The ventral striatum is best known as a key part of the brain's "reward system," central to all achieving, learning and loving (along with the dark side of reward seeking: compulsions and addictions).
The unexpected result was that targeted generosity also decreased activity in the amygdala – the brain’s epicenter of charged emotion, set deep within the limbic system, that kicks off the fight-or-flight response. Increased amygdala activity is a hallmark of anxiety disorders of all varieties, from generalized anxiety to phobias to PTSD.
A second experiment of just over 380 people took a different angle on the same question. This time the participants self-reported about their generous giving habits, and then completed the same emotion task while their brains were scanned. Again, both types of generosity were associated with brain activity linked to altriusm, and again the participants that said their generosity was targeted showed decreased amygdala activity, while those whose generosity was untargeted didn’t show this effect.
Taken together, the results of these experiments suggest that targeted generosity has both altruism-boosting and anxiety-decreasing effects. We get a little extra something from being generous when we know more specifically how someone will be helped.
"Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity, thereby contributing to an understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health," the researchers said in the study's conclusion.
These results overlap well with those of 2017 study showing that generous acts trigger activity in brain areas linked to decision making and reward seeking. Even when acting generously involves a difficult decision to make a sacrifice, even a significant sacrifice, it still results in greater feelings of happiness, according to the study, and the neural correlations appear to back that up.
As with all brain imaging studies like these, we have to be careful about drawing causal conclusions. It's impossible to say for certain that more or less activity in various brain areas has specific outcomes – we're still correlating one thing to another, not showing cause and effect. But, with each new study showing similar results, the correlations get a little stronger.
For now, a safe takeaway is simply that along with all of the obvious reasons to act generously, it seems likely that our brains are also affected in ways consistent with better mental health, which is yet another good reason to keep on doing good.
The latest study was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
The newly revised and updated 2018 edition of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite is now available.