The belief that “it’s better to give than to receive” can be traced back at least as far as the Bible. But while the sentiment is often understood as a moral lesson, there’s also a vast amount of scientific support for the benefits of generosity. As gift-giving ramps up amid the holiday season, those wondering how they end up spending so much might be interested to learn that generosity offers a wide range of benefits — neurological, psychological and even evolutionary.
“Studies of generosity in the human brain have revealed several regions involved in these behaviors,” says Catherine Franssen, a neuroscientist at Longwood University and the Science Museum of Virginia.
She points to a study published in Nature Communications in 2017, led by investigators at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, that compared subjects’ brain activity while spending money on themselves or on others. Those that spent on others had increased activity in the temporal parietal junction and ventral striatum, parts of the brain associated with empathy and happiness respectively.
“The connectivity between these two parts of the brain was modulated by the generosity that subjects showed in the experimental task,” said Thorsten Kahnt, a co-author of the study, in a press release. “And what’s interesting is that the signal of the striatum itself was directly related to increases in happiness.”
Other studies have linked generous behaviors with activity in the reward regions of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens, and an increase in dopamine (the neurotransmitter involved in motivation and pleasure). Researchers have also found that behaving generously can trigger neural patterns similar to those triggered by parental behavior. This may seem intuitive, considering that generous actions often mirror the selfless behaviors required for childrearing.
“The act of giving is rewarding to the brain and makes us feel good,” Franssen says. “Interestingly, these brain connections can take a bit longer to develop, which is why children and adolescents aren’t quite as excited about giving as receiving, but most adults make the transition.”
It's Not Just for Humans
The evolutionary value of generosity, and the social bonds it strengthens, isn’t limited to humans. The act of giving — for example, when animals give “nuptial gifts” to their potential mates — helps develop trust. Franssen gives the examples of penguins gifting rocks or male spiders who might give a “web-wrapped bug meal to a partner to tempt her not to eat him.”
Generosity can help to develop platonic relationships as well, as some species give gifts to strengthen friendships; bonobos, for example, have been found to gift fruit to potential new friends. Just as humans make mental notes of the behaviors of those around them, other animals develop keen awareness of who shares their supplies and who hoards it.
“Vampire bats are quite tiny and need to eat nightly or risk starvation, and will generously share a blood meal with other generous bats, but not with bats that have been selfish in the past,” Franssen says. “Several species, including humans, rate generosity as an attractive trait, and some individuals make sure they display generosity when they can be observed. Whether observed or not, gift giving can develop many kinds of social bonds and the emotional rewards of receiving a gift can heighten the experience with someone and enhance your memories of that person.”
Not All Giving Is Equal
How one gives (and to whom) can, of course, impact how rewarding the experience is.
Anyone who has felt moved to make a donation after hearing about a person’s particular plight has experienced the “identifiable victim effect.” This term describes our tendency to expend resources to help specific individuals rather than a general group — for example, giving more when shown an individual orphan rather than an anonymous silhouette, as a 2013 study demonstrated. The neuroscientists behind the study found that certain regions of the brain were activated when participants looked at another person’s face, leading them to feel a greater sense of empathy and subsequent desire to help.
Extending this concept further, humans have also been found to be more generous with those they perceive to share their own values, interests or physical appearance. Studies on this “ingroup favoritism effect” found that subjects spent more time thinking about their decision and examining potential recipients of their giving when in-group members were involved.
“The indications are that those who are generous may have a stronger neurobiological reward response to giving; it makes them happier and they feel that much better when they give,” Franssen says. “Some individuals feel very strongly about gifting to their family or in-group but are not generous to strangers, while others are more stingy or generous across all groups.”
Franssen points to new neuroscience work that has identified specific regions within our prefrontal cortex that seem to control these deliberations and limit our generosity. “Individual variance also exists in our neural empathy, the amount of activation in certain regions of the brain that indicate that we can feel what someone else feels,” she adds.
Whether we’re giving elaborate gifts, charitable donations or “web-wrapped bug meals,” there’s plenty of scientific support for the belief that generosity is good for us.