Charity and Philanthropy Releases Your Brain’s Happy Chemicals

In Christianity it is known as the Tithe or Offering, parts of which are often dropped into a bag or on a plate that gets passed around the congregation. In Islam, it is called Zakat, it’s the third pillar of their faith, often given in the holy month of Ramadan, and it can involve the use of Zakat calculators to work out the exact amount required. Hindus and Buddhists call the virtue of Dana, and Jews often use the word Tzedakah. The different words all agree on the same central concept, and the same positive opinion around it. Charity, generosity, philanthropy. These are all not just important, they are good for our souls, our lives, and our general well being.

But is there science behind this in addition to the holy commandments? Is giving and generosity just good because it helps those who had suffered under the heal of the more unjust elements of society? Is it purely a mechanistic benefit, or is there something more psychological going on? Can it really be a coincidence that five countries that find themselves in the top ten of the World Giving Index’s most generous nations also get listed in the top ten nations when surveyed for quality of life?

When considering any statistical correlation, it is first of all important to look for intervening factors, and among those there is the thorny question of who is most likely to be philanthropic. A 2007 study into the science of generosity by the University of Notre Dame pointed out that there is a very particular group of people who are most likely to be generous givers. Their common factors include:

  • Active and practicing religiosity
  • High levels of education
  • Homeownership
  • Married couples
  • Living in smaller to medium-size towns

So there is already a very simple and somewhat cynical explanation as to why philanthropic individuals feel good – their lives are already solid and stable enough to afford it. However affordability is not the entire calculus here, as a 2017 study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute found that life satisfaction and giving correlates strongly even when the level of giving is measured as a percentage of total household income.

Further examination can reveal a more granular reality that has more profound implications. In 2007 a study in the journal Science found that donating to charity has a neurochemical effect that is twinned with some other activities normally considered highly rewarding. Specifically, eating food, intensive exercising, and sex. So clearly something deeper is going on. Not only this, but longitudinal studies from 2013 published by the University of Buffalo concluded that increased philanthropy correlated strongly with increased longevity.

There are three main theories around why charitable giving is linked to positivity in our minds and bodies. Altruism, agency, and approval.

Altruism theory is arguably the ‘purest’ of the charitable benefit theories. It holds that people get benefit from charity by knowing that their giving is benefiting people. Thus they care mostly about the fact that benefit is offered, and are less bothered by how it happens exactly, meaning they could be equally happy if they make the charitable decision themselves, or if the money is taken from them via a compulsory force, such as taxation.

Agency theory works on the more psychological principle, that the pleasure and benefit of giving are derived from people making a deliberate decision to give. The closest comparable notion is the same thrill felt by gamblers as they make the decision about which numbers to bet on in roulette.

Approval theory assumes that giving is a social phenomenon, and that people feel good about giving because doing so means they can be regarded as affluent and self-effacingly generous by their friends, family, and wider peer groups.

William Harbaugh, a professor of economics, at the University of Oregon conducted a study in the town of Eugene to examine the first two theories. While undergoing a brain scan, subjects were given a fictional bank account and were presented with a situation where they would either be taxed, have the option to give money to a food bank, or just receive the money with no strings attached. The study concluded that while the pleasure centres of the brain are triggered by all three options, the strongest pleasure response came from charitable giving.

Another study involving brain scanning by Norihiro Sadato and colleagues from the Japanese National Institute of Physiological Sciences found that the pleasure response in the brain from charitable giving is deeply similar to the pleasure response that subjects displayed when receiving positive personal feedback from strangers. Whether this proves approval theory correct or not, what it does prove is that social positivity and charitable giving work along the same axis of mental positivity.

The conclusion to draw from this is clear. Giving feels good, and it feels good in the same way as being thought of as a good person. However you give, whatever reason you do it for, know that feeling good afterwards isn’t something to feel ashamed of. It is a natural part of the process of generosity.