An old man in Indiana named Glenn was once asked at a church meeting about his religion. He replied, “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, that’s my religion.” Now, Glenn’s words of wisdom probably wouldn’t have spread much farther than Indiana if Abraham Lincoln hadn’t heard him speak and later repeated Glenn’s words to describe his own moral compass.
Altruism as a concept isn’t very old. The word itself didn’t exist until 1851 when the French philosopher Auguste Comte coined it based on the Latin word alteri, “others,” but the act of giving may go back to the beginning of time. “When I do good I feel good” is something most of us can relate to.
A good deed does make us feel better. A smile of thanks after you’ve helped a person lift a stroller off a train, or the gratitude in the eyes of a beggar when a few coins land on the bottom of their paper cup, will make you feel like a good person.
And most of us want to be good people. It’s the definition of “good” that varies.
It’s that warm and fuzzy feeling we get after doing good deeds – giving away our time or money – that makes many of us do it in the first place. In the late 1980s, economist James Andreoni coined the term “warm glow” for the biggest reward a donor gets from the satisfaction of knowing that she’s done something good.
According to economists Amihai Glazer and Kai Konrad, donors to charity have other motives, too. They also want to show others how good they are. Bill Harbaugh – also an economist – at the University of Oregon, noted in his 1998 paper in the American Economic Review that if the names of donors are made public, and there are specific levels a donor can reach, most donations are made to match the minimum amount to reach a sponsor category.
So we do good things because it makes us feel good – but we also don’t mind others knowing how great we are. That makes sense.
But while the economic models make sense on an intuitive level, economics is not an exact science. However, we do know that there are parts of our brains that light up when we do good deeds. We know that helping others reduces our own stress, and the physiological changes that take place in our stressed bodies can be measured.
“That act of giving modulates the brain system in the same way that receiving does,” Scott Huettel, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, told ABC News.
“The brain regions that [we know to] deal with motivation showed increase in activation when people are giving.”
His own study showed that the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC) becomes highly activated as people’s altruism levels rise. The pSTC is at the back of the brain and focuses on perceiving others’ intentions and actions, originally a way for our caveman ancestors to react to a threat.
Being nice to others also triggers several happiness chemicals in the body, according to Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at New York’s Stony Brook University.
The chemicals include dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria, and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquillity, serenity, or inner peace. Oxytocin mediates a tend-mend response, the antidote to the “fight or flight” response that stressful moments create.
The need for dopamine, in turn, makes people want to do the same thing again.
“Charitable giving can activate the same pleasure-reward centers, the dopaminergic centers, in the brain that are very closely tied to habit formation,” Harbaugh told the New York Times.
“This suggests it might be possible to foster the same sorts of habits for charitable giving you see with other sorts of habits.”
In a 2006 study at the National Institute of Health, led by Jorge Moll, 19 women were asked to think about a situation in which they got a sum of money and were asked to either keep it or donate it to charity. When the volunteers chose to donate the (imaginary) money, the area of the brain that was activated was the same one that responds to food or sex.
Ten years ago, the results were revolutionary because the conclusion seemed to be that altruism – helping others, doing good deeds, all of that – was hard-wired in our brains.
Marc Hauser, a Harvard researcher, told the Washington Post that “people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture. It may be useful to think about morality much like language, in that its basic features are hard-wired.”
It may be enough to watch others in order to trigger the warm feeling of being good, the “elevation.” In a 2010 study led by psychological scientist Simone Schnall from the University of Cambridge, volunteers watched three TV clips: one uplifting, one neutral, and one funny. Afterwards, the research assistant told them she had computer problems and that the volunteers were free to go – but she also asked if they’d like to help her by filling in another questionnaire, even if it was sort of boring.
The participants who viewed the uplifting TV clip spent almost twice as long helping the research assistant than participants who saw the other clips.
Also, an Australian study from 2008 found that employees who got to donate $50 to charity on behalf of their company said they were happier and more satisfied with their jobs than those who received the money themselves. In a follow-up study, prosocial bonus teams – teams whose members were given money to buy something for a teammate – performed better than personal bonus teams.
As Shakespeare put it in “The Merchant of Venice”:
“That light we see is burning in my hall.
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”
This story originally appeared in the September issue of Scandinavian Traveler