With the holidays fast approaching, the season of giving is right around the corner. Most of us are inspired during this time to be more thankful and generous and recognize that it feels good to give to others less fortunate or contribute to an important cause. Recent scientific studies have looked deeper into the neural link between generosity and happiness, discovering that there is a connection. Other studies have also shown that being generous can reduce stress and anxiety and positively impact life expectancy. 

The Neural Links Behind Generosity 

    Professors from the University of Zurich in Switzerland wanted to focus on what” goes on” inside a person's brain when performing a generous act. The study, published in Nature Communications, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) to understand the neural connection between generosity and happiness. The researchers discovered increased activity had occurred in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) among the study participants when committing to perform a generous act. This brain region is where the temporal and parietal lobes meet and is responsible for self-awareness and various aspects of social cognition.

    A more recent study conducted by Professors from the University of Pittsburgh analyzed generosity and its effect on the amygdala. This brain region controls the "fight or flight" response and other emotional responses. Increased activity of the amygdala correlates with an increase in stress and anxiety. The study's findings, published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, showed that individuals who regularly helped others in need subsequently had decreased activity in this region of the brain.

Generosity and Mental Wellbeing 

    Of the two highlighted studies, the second study considered "targeted" versus "untargeted" generosity or giving to those we identify are in need. According to the Professors from the University of Pittsburgh, “Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity, thereby contributing to understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health.” With untargeted generosity, although there is an increase in the TPJ brain region, there is no decrease in amygdala activity, as seen with targeted forms of generosity. Ultimately, the conclusion is that by decreasing the activity of the amygdala through targeted acts of generosity, we improve our mental health by warding off symptoms of anxiety and depression, therefore increasing our overall life expectancy. 

    Many social theorists have argued that human beings are inherently selfish, and science is beginning to rewrite that narrative. Humans are social beings, and by helping those in need, we are also helping ourselves. Acts of generosity, whether it be donating to a local charity, volunteering your time to help the community, or offering a shoulder to lean on, all serve to strengthen our social bonds while also improving our mental wellbeing and physical health. 

Written by Laura LeFrenier

This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.

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