Can generosity lessen your stress?
Like a warm beverage or a bowl of soup, there’s something that gives us a warm, toasty feeling inside: generosity. There’s no doubt, donating money to charities and causes makes us feel good – and science confirms it causes neural changes in the brain associated with happiness. Plus, helping others is shown to lesson depression, reduce blood pressure and increase longevity.
But does who we donate our money to make a difference in how much our health and well-being benefits? Researchers say it might.
In a study of two experiments, scientists examined how different types of generosity – which they called targeted and untargeted – affect the brain. In the first experiment, 45 participants performed a task where they could receive a monetary reward for either a person close to them who was in need (targeted giving), a larger societal cause (untargeted giving) or themselves (self-reward). In the second experiment, more than 380 participants self-reported their giving behavior. In both groups after the giving was recorded, the researchers used MRI to scan the participants’ brain activity.
As the researchers expected, both the targeted and untargeted types of giving produced increased activity in the regions of the brain associated with parental care. It suggests that giving support, regardless of the target, can be reinforcing compared to rewarding yourself.
“This finding supports the ‘warm glow’ effect – the satisfying feeling after you’ve helped someone out,” explains Lisa Cottrell, PhD, who is board certified in behavioral sleep medicine and practices at Aurora Behavioral Health Center in Grafton, WI. “Generosity and giving to others makes us happier than when we act solely out of self-interest.”
In comparing the two types of giving, the researchers reported that targeted support (versus untargeted) resulted in greater feelings of social connection and feeling the support was effective.
They also found that those giving targeted support had less activity in the amygdala, a structure in the brain that sends fight-or-flight signals when you’re under stress. Previous research shows that increased activity in the amygdala is seen in anxiety and stress disorders, and may contribute to insomnia and other sleep disorders.
The researchers concluded the reduced amygdala activity seen in this study indicates targeted giving may benefit a person’s health and well-being even more by lowering their anxiety and stress. Therefore, Cottrell feels generosity may help improve sleep quality as well.
“Giving time or money to a cause we feel especially close to – such as a charity in honor of friend or family member who has cancer – may have similar health benefit,” Cottrell says. “No matter the type of giving, making a meaningful contribution of any kind provides a sense of hope and greater social connection to others, which positively impacts your own wellness.”
About the Author
Mary Arens, health enews contributor, is a senior content specialist at Advocate Aurora Health in Milwaukee. She has 20+ years of experience in communications plus a degree in microbiology. Outside of work, Mary makes healthy happen with hiking, yoga, gardening and walks with her dog, Chester.