The Science Behind the Happiness of Giving

"If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody." ~Chinese proverb


Photo of colorful toy monkeys linking arms in the sky.
Photo of colorful toy monkeys linking arms in the sky.

We all know the feeling, the warm afterglow that you feel after you help someone. In 1989, economist James Andreoni gave this feeling the name "warm-glow giving” with the theory that the reason people donate to charity is that it benefited them subsequently with an altruistic outlook and a warm good feeling inside. Neurologists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman have recently investigated the science behind this feeling. As it turns out the old saying, “It’s better to give than to receive” may have a biological basis.

Photo of a woman smiling.
Photo of a woman smiling.

Grafaman organized two studies within the last decade that looked at the brain and what happens to it when someone decided to donate to charity versus receiving money themselves. The neurologist also asked them about their involvement in charitable work and voluntary donations. Through MRI imaging (a powerful machine that creates images of the brain's activity by detecting physical changes such as blood flow resulting from the activity of neurons) Grafaman was able to see what parts of the brain were activated when charitable actions took place and when a person received some money.


The results showed that regardless of whether a recipient received money or donated it the same part of the brain lit up, an area of the brain toward the forehead, known as the anterior prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain in charge of intensive cognitive processes such as decision making, reasoning, personality expression, and social cognition. Additionally, when asked about their regular involvement in charitable causes, whether volunteer or donation, those that had the highest ratings also had the highest level of activity in their prefrontal cortex.

Photo of an older man with a young man smiling and laughing with each other.
Photo of an older man with a young man smiling and laughing with each other.

This study, and many others like it, have demonstrated that when people put the interest of others before their own their brains are activated, happy chemicals are released, and the "reward" systems that are usually stimulated by food, sex, and money are in overdrive; as well as the subgenual area is stimulated, this is the same area when humans see babies and romantic partners.

Photo of a cute baby smiling.
Photo of a cute baby smiling.

The happiness of giving transcends science. When you give, you inspire others around you to give. Positivity is infectious and has the potential to create a wave of generosity and goodwill in your community. It brings more meaning to your life, especially when you give to causes that you are passionate about. It can act as a catalyst in your life to do more and live by what you believe in. And now we know that giving to others actually gives to yourself not just emotionally but physically. When you give you create profound joy for yourself and those around you.

Photo of a woman holding coins and a note that says “make a change.”
Photo of a woman holding coins and a note that says “make a change.”

"For it is in giving that we receive." ~Saint Francis of Assisi


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