Turns Out You CAN Buy Happiness: Investing in Dopamine Futures

by Charles Lyell on July 7, 2011

Most people will insist that they prefer giving gifts over receiving them, but now researchers at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke have proven it. Dr. Jordan Grafman and his lab conducted a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that measured people’s brain activity while playing a game in which they were both awarded cash and asked to donate some of that cash to different charities. Using fMRI, the researchers observed the same neurological reward pathways lighting up when a person received and donated cash in the game. Upon donating, however, subjects displayed a marked increase in reward activation compared to the good feelings associated with receiving cash.

The effect was further enhanced when subjects made costly donations to causes of personal importance. After finishing their fundraising, participants were asked to rank each charity according to their familiarity and feelings toward the cause. In addition to feeling better about making a larger payment to a cause they were more attached to, a costly donation lit up parts of the pre-frontal cortex – the most recently evolved portion of the brain associated with reason, morality, and judgment. Many researchers ascribe uniquely human behaviors, like our capacity for altruism, to the prefrontal cortex, often comparing it to the less developed lobes of greater-ape brains.

In an interview with the PNAS, Dr. Grafman goes so far as to suggest that regular and creative charitable donations may benefit the prefrontal cortex – reinforcing the processes that help us to decide that doing good feels good may even aid humanity’s evolution.

“It’s good for the species,” concludes Grafman, “donate.” And he isn’t the only one espousing the benefits of regimental generosity.

Wired magazine recently ran an article on the advent of cell phone philanthropy – the ability to text a donation to your charity of choice – debating the relative merits of immediate action vs. lasting effort. Citing the increased reward sensation from being able to immediately contribute to relief efforts following disasters like the Haitian earthquake or recent Japanese tsunami, the article ultimately concluded that, “twitter + dopamine = better humans.”

And because of their global applications, communication networks like twitter, facebook, and even simple text messages can allow people to specify and diversify their philanthropic portfolios, maximizing every dime and dopamine hit.

What about you?

When’s the last time you treated yourself to a nice, healthy, helpful hit of dopamine by donating to your favorite charity?

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