Charitable giving is certainly good for the beneficiary of that charity, but does it benefit the giver, too?
Donors frequently cite the happiness they feel from giving as a motivation to be more generous, but few know that this relationship is backed by research. Multiple studies in the last two decades show that giving back has profound psychological and even physiological benefits, validating conventional wisdom that giving is also good for the giver.
A 2014 study by professors at Harvard Business School, the University of British Columbia, and Simon Fraser University found that “people who spend money on others report greater happiness.” This was true for adults from all over the world—Canada, India, South Africa, and Uganda—and even for the youngest of givers. In the same study, researchers gave goldfish crackers to toddlers, who were asked to give one of their treats away to “a puppet who enthusiastically ate the treat.” Children displayed more happiness when giving treats away to the puppet than when they received treats themselves.
In a 2021 interview with The Health Nexus, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and researcher at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explained the physiological process behind how prosocial spending generates happiness. “When people are altruistic and generous, it creates a response in the brain that taps into positive emotions. The brain also produces and releases neurotransmitters and hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin, that help us feel happiness and pleasure.”
Not only can giving increase happiness, but it can also improve health. In 2005, researchers sampled over 1,000 older adults in Brooklyn, New York, to study altruism and health, asking whether participants gave or received more in their exchanges with others in the last three months. Exchanges could have been material (like money, food, or help) or emotional (like advice). The study found that “levels of social support given were associated with lower morbidity, whereas levels of receiving were not.” This held true for participants regardless of socioeconomic status, age, education, gender, or ethnicity.
Brain regions responsible for reward processing, social attachment, and aversion—which are active in charitable decision-making—are also found in other mammals. However, when giving requires us to draw on abstract moral reasoning, we engage in a uniquely human activity.
In 2006, neuroscientists from the National Institutes of Health used fMRIs on 19 individuals during a donation decision-making test. Participants read the mission statements of various charities and chose whether or not to donate to or or to “oppose it”—with a catch. Their decision impacted their own “personal endowment.” Individuals could earn up to $128 if they chose a payoff with the maximum personal gain each time, but if they did so, some money would go to charities they opposed. The researchers found that making donation decisions “tied to abstract moral beliefs” lit up a brain region developed especially in humans. The fMRIs showed that “anterior sections of the prefrontal cortex are distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.”
Givers of all ages benefit in body and mind, experiencing better health, more happiness, and increased brain activation. Donors, guided by their values and an activated anterior prefrontal cortex, help the needy and transform society. Jesus’s words in Acts 20:35 are as true today as they were then: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”