Generosity: Giving makes you happy

Those who do good to others without expecting anything in return are acting generously. Researchers show how positive the effect of engagement for others is on ourselves

Whether feeding birds or helping the neighbors: Doing good for others makes you happy

© plainpicture GmbH & Co KG / Julie DeRoche

The "Miracle of Braunschweig" began in 2011 with an inconspicuous envelope that was received by the Victims Aid Foundation. In it: 10,000 euros in cash. The benefactor remained anonymous, no name, no note. And it did not stop at this one mild gift. For four years a real rain of money fell on the city. The traffic watch, a kindergarten, the carolers, a soup kitchen, a hospice, a severely disabled boy - they all received gifts. In total, more than 260,000 euros were packed in white envelopes and distributed to individuals and organizations. By whom? Nobody knows that until today.

The story almost sounds too good to be true. Does it not at all fit into the idea of ​​the selfish nature of man - who, if he already gives, at least wants to reap thanks, praise, and recognition for it. Selfless generosity is part of our everyday life. People risk their lives for others, dedicate their free time to a good cause, share their money.

Those who act prosocially do not expect anything in return

The numbers are impressive: almost every second German is a volunteer. And according to the GfK study "Bilanz des Helfens", German citizens donated around 5.3 billion euros to charitable organizations or churches in 2018 - a new record.

"Pro-social is behavior that other people use and that is associated with costs for oneself," says Anne Böckler-Raettig, professor of psychology at the University of Würzburg. "These costs can relate to physical resources that we invest to help someone move. Or time that we invest, for example to comfort a friend. But material things that we share are also included."

Those who act prosocially put themselves aside in favor of others and do not expect anything in return. That doesn't mean, however, that selfish motives don't play a role at all. Those who regularly bake cakes for their colleagues probably do so primarily to make them happy. Perhaps, however, there is also the expectation of climbing up the office popularity scale for this. After all, it is socially desirable to stand up for the community and put yourself aside.

Society works better through selflessness

So does pure altruism without ulterior motives even exist? "Generous behavior does not actually make sense if you think purely economically," says psychologist and brain researcher Soyoung Park, professor at the Charité and head of department at the German Institute for Nutritional Research. "But such behavior is very important for our survival and essential for the functioning of a society."

Scientists from the Universities of Zurich and Erfurt found out, for example, that altruism and cooperation were decisive achievements in the history of human development. The more often the members of a group behaved generously and altruistically, the greater the survival advantage of the whole clan.

This could also explain why we are more generous with people close to us than with strangers, as a study by Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf shows. According to this theory, self-sacrifice does not benefit the individual - it does benefit the community.

Double happiness: those who give time to others not only give them pleasure

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Generous behavior activates the reward center

But everyone can also benefit directly from responding to a blood donation call or taking their elderly neighbor's purchases to the second floor. "If we behave generously, it makes us happy," says Soyoung Park.
The close connection between giving and happiness can even be seen in the brain, as the researcher and colleagues found out in an experiment. According to the results, generous behavior activates an area of ​​the brain that is closely linked to our reward center.

This connection could also explain why people are always ready to help complete strangers themselves - for example with money for organizations that are active in the Third World. Or through an organ donation. Last year 955 people declared that an unknown patient could be saved with one of their organs after their death. What makes this form of altruism so special: The donor no longer experiences the result of their own generosity.

In fact, a firm commitment to be generous is often enough to feel a sense of satisfaction. Expert Park: "Interestingly enough, giving actually makes you happier than self-reward."

Selflessness: Hereditary disposition and brain structure play a role

The question remains why some people behave more socially than others. According to science, one reason for this could also be our genetic make-up. Researchers led by Martin Reuter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Bonn, identified a certain gene that probably influences the experience of positive emotions. Depending on the variant of this gene, test subjects donated more or less money to a charitable cause in an experiment.

The structure of the brain also seems to affect the level of our selflessness. Economists at the University of Zurich found that the amount of gray matter at a certain point in the mind influences how altruistic we are. The same region also seems to be responsible for processing compassion.

The researchers gave test subjects money to split between themselves and an anonymous gaming partner. Their brain activity was recorded. The tests were able to show that the aforementioned brain region was always active when people reached the limits of their generosity - with the more stingy, even small sums were enough.

Altruism is learned and influenced by traditions

It is comforting that the gift of giving is not just determined by biology. People are primarily shaped by social norms, values ​​and moral concepts. The environment also determines how generously we act - this has been proven by numerous studies. Altruism is accordingly a learned behavior that society expects and rewards. And that is also influenced by traditions. So it is hardly surprising that more donations are made in December than in the other months of the year: 20 percent of the total donation volume in 2018 came together around the festival of love - in the high season for generosity.

But is it really real altruism when we suddenly give presents to everyone and everything around Christmas? "After all, prosocial behavior is not characterized by the fact that it should not give us any pleasure," says Anne Böckler-Raettig. Whenever we share time and energy or our belongings, it is an investment that attracts with a double dividend: happiness for others and for ourselves.