I have been a devout student of philanthropy over my 20-year career in fundraising. Interested in all things having to do with why people give, I know I am not alone; I frequently come across various studies, reports, and the latest trends. For years, experiments have been conducted across cultures and age ranges, asking the question: Is there really a link between generosity and happiness? Those of us who frequently give to our beloved nonprofit organizations likely recognize that generosity improves our individual well-being and facilitates societal success. However, in everyday life, most people underestimate the link between generosity and happiness and therefore overlook the true and very real benefits of prosocial spending.
With COS’s 2024 Stewardship Campaign now in full swing, I want to share the results of an interesting experiment that was conducted by the Department of Psychology at University of Lubeck, Germany; Northwestern University’s Department of Neurology; and the University of Zurich’s Department of Economics. The goal of the study was to determine whether generous behavior increases human happiness. Until then, generous behavior and happiness had mostly been investigated separately, in neuroimaging studies. Study researchers used committed pledges as the way to determine the study’s outcome, like Church of Our Saviour does to meet our yearly budgetary goal.
Researchers were on a quest to understand the neural underpinnings of whether generous behavior increases happiness. At the outset of the study, participants were asked whether they would perceive greater happiness after spending money on themselves or after spending greater amounts of money in general. Most agreed that a greater amount of happiness would ensue from spending money on themselves.
Experiments were then conducted on 50 healthy men and women via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to investigate how generosity is linked to happiness on the neural level. Brain regions engaged in generous behavior are generally located in the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) and ventral striatum (VS). The TPJ area of the brain is correlated with altruism, generous choice, and overcoming egocentricity bias. The VS is associated with happiness vis-à-vis its connection to reward and pleasure.
The study’s participants were told they would receive a total of four weekly monetary endowments: those in the experimental group were asked to commit to spending on others during the following four weeks, while the control group members were asked to commit to spending the weekly stipends on themselves. All participants then performed an independent decision-making task in which they could personally decide to behave in a more generous or less generous way while doing said task. All brain activity was measured using MRI.
What researchers found was that when participants made generous decisions, the MRI showed that engagement of the TPJ was higher in the experimental group (the group that committed to spending their stipends on others) than in the control group (the group that committed to spending on themselves). Participants in the experimental group also made more generous choices in the independent decision-making task and reported stronger increases in happiness.
For a person to achieve happiness through generous behavior, the brain regions involved in empathy and social cognition need to overwrite selfish motives in reward-related brain regions. Even in a strictly controlled laboratory setting, what researchers found was that it was the commitment to giving which induced generosity and raised individual happiness.
The data suggests that a commitment to generous behavior can increase happiness and thereby provide a neural mechanism that links commitment-induced generosity to happiness.
The experimental group’s generous public pledge efficiently boosted generous behavior and happiness, which did not occur for those who had committed to spend money on themselves. The behavioral and neural changes induced were striking, considering that participants had neither received nor spent any money at the time of the experiment. These findings have important implications not only for neuroscience but also for education, politics, economics, and health. This study provides behavioral and neural evidence that supports the link between generosity and happiness.
This Stewardship Season, you will have the opportunity to read more about personal experience in relation to generosity in Profiles in Generosity, a Messenger article series that will be featured over the next few weeks. Profiles in Generosity will comprise a variety of perspectives on generosity, from clergy and fellow parishioners, in the contexts of parenting, culture, aging, and healthcare. As giving is the secret of abundance, I hope their stories will inspire you to give generously to Church of Our Saviour in 2024.