SPOILER ALERT! ~ Generosity is paradoxical because it always comes at a cost to oneself :it can only occur when we are able to overcome our selfish motives. ~ Overcoming our selfish urges is associated with activity in the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) . TPJ is involved in the ability to understand and predict other’s perspectives and emotions. ~ Making a commitment to be generous is linked to higher activation of the TPJ, thus facilitating generosity. ~ TPJ is also connected to the ventral striatum (VS), a brain region involved in pleasure and reward . Activation of the VS is responsible for the warm feeling we get when we are generous ~ Activation of the VS is linked with increased happiness
Generosity towards other is a paradoxical behavior, because it always comes at a cost to the self. Indeed, from an economic standpoint such a behavior should not exist since being generous to others always implies taking away from oneself. If I choose to give money to cancer research for example, there will be less for myself. Nonetheless, the behavior persists and to explain this paradox, it has been proposed that generosity continues to occur because it induces happiness.
Generosity implicates Overcoming one’s Selfish Needs
Neuroimaging studies indicate that generosity and other altruistic behaviors are associated with increased activation in an area in the brain called the temporal parietal junction (TPJ).
The TPJ is an area that has been consistently and reliably implicated in the ability to represent and understand others’ perspectives. More interestingly, this area is recruited when a person faces a tradeoff between self-interest and other people’s interest. Such tradeoffs occur every time we have to decide whether to give or not.
Thus, the TPJ plays a crucial role in overcoming our selfish motives to enable generous behaviors when it comes at a cost to oneself. More importantly, making a public pledge to act generously enhances the activity of this brain region, which further increases the propensity to be generous.
For example, in the current study increased activity in the TPJ was found among participants who chose to forgo their own rewards in favor of rewards for others. In addition, those committed to spend money on other people were more effectively recruiting this brain region and better able to overcome their selfish needs.
Generosity Induces Happiness
Another important finding is that the TPJ is also connected to the ventral striatum (VS), which is a brain region associated with pleasure and reward. More specifically, the VS plays a key role in the acquisition and development of reward-based behaviors by evaluating their value, predictability and the potential risk.
Thus, activation of the TPJ also modulated activity in the VS, and this type of activation is connected to the experience of happiness, more specifically it is the reinforcing element in the persistence of generous behaviors. Indeed, a stronger TPJ-VS connectivity facilitated generosity among the participants, because it is the source of the warm feeling we get when we act generously towards others.
Similarly, higher activity in the VS was also associated with greater increases in happiness among the participants. Intriguingly, the degree of activation of the VS is not what consistently predicted happiness, since it was found that participants committing to be generous at a later time exhibited lower VS activity, and yet they still experienced greater happiness at the end of the experiment.
To explain this surprising finding, it was proposed that those participants chose to sacrifice short-term hedonic gain (i.e., related to pleasure) for longer-term happiness. Thus, the warm glow we experience when acting in a generous manner is only momentary, while committing to be generous in the future enhances happiness by making it last longer.
Park SQ, Kahnt T, Dogan A, Strang S, Fehr E, Tobler PN. A neural link between generosity and happiness. Nat Commun. 2017 Jul 11;8:15964. doi: 10.1038/ncomms15964. PMID: 28696410; PMCID: PMC5508200.