Naturally benevolent people often encourage others to do good deeds for the support it offers people in need and the warm feelings of satisfaction to be gained in return.
As it turns out, this isn’t just common wisdom but actual demonstrated science. Charitable acts like volunteering for a cause, donating resources, and even performing a simple favor for someone can fire a myriad of responses in your brain, leading to what many scientists call the “warm glow.”
Rewarding your kindness
When performing a generous act, your brain reacts in a fascinating way, engaging various circuits that not only make us feel good but also give us a sense that we have gained something in return. “Part of the uniqueness of the reward activation around gift-giving compared to something like receiving an award or winning money is that because it is social it also activates pathways in the brain that release oxytocin,” Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD and a neuroscience expert who specializes in the psychology of altruism, tells APA.org. This sudden uptick in oxytocin after doing something charitable is what’s responsible for that familiar “warm glow” feeling.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, or a class of small proteins that send signals throughout the brain and body to generate certain sensations and responses. We can attribute our feelings of trust in others, safety in a social setting, and connection with fellow humans, even strangers, to this chemical. “It’s often referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone,’” Simon-Thomas adds, because of the powerful, enduring feelings of connectedness it triggers. In other words, we actually have a biological framework for experiencing deep, emotional links with others. So when you do a service like participating in a food drive or giving personal care products to a shelter, you’re triggering a connection with the strangers you’re helping—a feeling you’re designed to crave.
Partaking in good deeds also offers more mental delight than the quick satisfaction you gain from such activities. When your brain triggers the release of oxytocin, the subsequent rewarding, warm feeling sustains for a long period, unlike the brief perk of a dopamine response that occurs when you receive a positive stimulation like eating your favorite food. This means that you may experience more joy when you give money or items than when you receive them.
So why does your body reward generosity better? Is your brain trying to trick you into being more charitable and less thrifty? Actually, it has more to do with the human body’s evolutionary understanding that a strong social network is essential to one’s well-being. Being social animals, our instincts make us keenly aware that acts like giving food to the hungry reinforce potentially life-saving bonds with others. After all, should we be the next to go hungry, a strong and loyal social network can support us in return.
Living to serve
Altruism may seem like it would be the product of good parenting, but, as with building social connections, giving back is deeply woven into our DNA. Unlike specific behaviors that we are taught or develop through social conditioning, generosity is instinctual, as if basic to our biology. “Humans are born with the biological ‘hardware’ required for generosity,” say the experts at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. According to their research, the various cranial responses triggered when acting selflessly are signs that these acts are valuable to survival, so much so that our brains reward us for partaking in them, in turn training us to repeat them.
But charitable acts like helping a friend who is short on money don’t just feel pleasurable. Studies have shown that altruism also stimulates the orbitofrontal cortex, the segment of the brain responsible for complex decision-making. This suggests that the human mind not only enjoys being generous but also considers the ramifications of these acts of kindness. What do you lose when you give time or resources to others? How will doing so positively affect the other individual or group? And, most importantly, how will generosity impact your social network? For example, say that you are scrolling through a website for a humanitarian cause. Reading about the organization’s mission, projects, and success stories may stimulate your orbitofrontal cortex to learn why it makes a difference, subsequently convincing you to contribute funds to them.
Some theories also suggest that prosocial behavior, or acting in a way that benefits our support network, was essential to the success of the cooperative social systems that helped early humans thrive. However, humans aren’t alone in being charitable. Studies of other social mammals like monkeys have indicated a similar biological framework exists for prosocial behavior. In one study reported by the Greater Good Science Center, some monkeys demonstrated a willingness to give food away to unrelated primates, even if the recipients didn’t reciprocate their generosity.
Where humans exceed wild animals, though, is in our propensity to give anonymously, engaging in acts like giving food to a drive or answering requests to donate to causes online. These actions help people we don’t know and may never meet, which is charitable behavior that has never been reported in other species. While scientists continue to research the biological roots and physiological effects of being generous, our ability to do good for others is evident—as are the positive feelings we experience in return.