Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, is an expert on the neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, and gratitude. Simon-Thomas is the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, where her responsibilities include helping run the Expanding Gratitude project. With the approaching holidays, we spoke with her about the importance of generosity and how it can provide health benefits to the giver.
Is generosity a basic human trait?
Yes. Most researchers today see generosity as a fundamental human characteristic. It is a complement to self-interest, and humans develop with the propensity to generosity. It is part of our basic cooperative nature.
Do only humans show generosity?
There are many examples of generosity (sometimes referred to in research as altruism) in the animal kingdom. There is quite a bit of variance depending on the social nature of a particular species. Primates demonstrate kindness and altruism and cooperative behaviors, but there is variance by species; for example, the bonobo are a species that tend to display greater generosity than the lower-order capuchin monkeys. In addition, bats are known for their generous behaviors. They will share blood with another member of their colony that had not been successful in their recent hunt. Ants are routinely very cooperative and generous. They will sacrifice self-interest in order to protect the interests of the group. Bees are notoriously cooperative. There are many other organisms that are extraordinarily generous.
Is generosity cultural?
Absolutely. There are certainly ways where different contextual factors influence an individual's generosity. While you may come into the world with a certain capacity for generosity, how generous you are over the course of your life can depend a lot on your family life and what your cultural and social values and norms are. Certain cultures really endorse and model generosity as an aspiration and as a key moral virtue or value. And other cultures bestow less value on generosity—although worldwide, generosity is something that cultures tend to value at least somewhat.
There is a very broad characterization of cultures which tends to apply to Western individualistic vs. Eastern collectivist cultures. Collectivist cultures are reputed to place more emphasis on generosity and the importance of one’s contribution to the collective as a cultural value than Western individualistic cultures tend to do. There are certain smaller cultures, including some indigenous cultures, that place the collective welfare more front and center than the individual’s or self-interest welfare. And there are cultures that are more highly informed by Buddhist philosophical orientation, which is also very collectivist and generous in its value system. People who emerge in these types of cultures may exhibit greater generosity.
Is generosity essential for a functioning society? And what is it about generosity that makes it essential?
Generosity is a vehicle for cooperation. If one is able to value the interest of others in the same equation that they value self-interest, that is a necessary component of cooperation. Cooperation is not possible if an individual is solely self-interested. So, I would argue that in a species that is dedicated to cooperation, that survives as a result of cooperation, generosity is essential. Humans are not the largest, most fierce, most aggressive species on the planet. And yet we have prevailed in our evolutionary trajectory, and that largely is a result of our capacity for cooperation.
What benefits does generosity have for the giver, health-wise?
When people are generous, they experience pleasure through that act or behavior—or even by just imagining or anticipating being generous. The more easily people experience positive states where they are trusting, safe, and connected to others, the more happy they will report their lives are overall. There’s something about generosity and its relationship to connecting with others and cooperating that makes a person emotionally positive and resilient in the face of challenges.
In terms of physical health, the literature is still emerging. There is a long tradition of science showing that people who volunteer more tend to be healthier, but there’s a question of the directionality of that relationship. Are people who are healthier just more inclined to volunteer? That being said, there are research studies showing that volunteering does afford a small benefit to a person’s physical health. There’s also research on mortality, which shows that later in life when people are more involved in generous behavior they tend to be less likely to die. There are lots of potential explanations, but the primary argument is that when people spend more time involved in meaningful pursuits or behaviors, this is something that serves their well-being, as well as strengthens their social support network. If you’re out in the world being generous, you’re creating connections with other people that serve you in the long run. That sense of social support is very important for health.
Is there a difference in benefits from being generous to strangers vs. people you know and have a relationship with?
Yes and no. It’s much easier for humans to be generous to people they are familiar with, that they have a sense of similarity towards. That’s not to say there’s a higher benefit. But they are more likely to engage in this behavior and thus more likely to derive a benefit from it. When people are generous to unfamiliar people, there is still the same potential for benefit. It’s just maybe a harder nut to crack, and it may be more of a challenge to find the motivation to be openly generous to someone you don’t know.
Humans are unique in their capacity and predilection to be generous to a complete stranger who they may never see again. Oftentimes, that is explained through our desire to see justice, or our interest in fairness as a core value. Humans and primates alike prefer situations that are fair. So it might be that when we see things that are unfair and that could cause harm to a stranger, we’re driven to repair that unfairness through an act of generosity.
Does any sort of generosity, no matter how small or what it involves (money vs. volunteering, for example), convey benefits to the giver? Or is there a threshold?
I don’t think so. I don’t think you have to give more than you think is fair. I certainly think there is a relationship between the benefit and the sense of meaningful contribution. There’s a wonderful study of young children who were given the opportunity to give away the goldfish crackers in a little cup they had as part of an experiment. The conditions were that you could give away the crackers that were in your cup, or you could give away additional crackers that you were given as a found extra. (It’s like finding $10 on the street and giving it to a homeless person vs. pulling $10 out of your wallet that you feel like you earned or have a sense of ownership of.)
When researchers took videos of the facial expressions of the children in the experiment, what they found was this: When they actually gave out of their own cup, they exhibited the most authentic, most robust smiles. Giving someone something that was given to you to give was not associated with as strong of a positive response. That suggests that when you transcend self-interest as part of the act of generosity, that’s a more powerful experience than just taking something that was given to you and then distributing it to others. Now, that said, when we do anything that reduces or eliminates the pain of another person, we experience an empathic relief in response to that. And that’s something that’s experienced as a positive emotion. So, any act of generosity has the potential to be a boost to our own well-being.
Does the frequency of generosity matter, or can even one generous act be beneficial?
That’s a great question. When we study people in the laboratory, we are measuring a single generous act. For example, you’re given the chance to supportively hold the arm of a partner who you know is about to get a shock. And your brain is being measured in this circumstance. This activates circuits in your brain that are associated with pleasure and reward. And there’s a social connection. And that’s one act. If you want any kind of behavior to incur more profound benefit, repetition is going to be helpful. When learning how to ride a bike, for example, if you just do it once, you might feel like you started to get good at it. But if you really want to get good at it and somewhat automate the experience for yourself, then repetition is going to be a more powerful approach.
Is being generous vital to our happiness as individuals?
Insofar as being generous is a key aspect of contributing to the greater good, yes. When we think about happiness, we distill it into three main pillars. One is having an easy time feeling positive states. Often the most powerful positive states are the ones that involve other people, and generosity is a way of fueling those interpersonal positive states. The second pillar is your sense of social connection. How supported to you feel? How meaningful and deep are your connections with other people? We mean quality, not quantity. And the third is your sense of purpose and meaning; how much are you actually contributing to something beyond yourself? All of these involve an element of generosity. I would argue that, yes, generosity is pretty important to happiness.
Can you talk a bit about the pleasure circuits in the brain that are involved with generosity?
There are a few different systems that are involved with generosity. The most common system that people think of when they talk about the pleasure system is the mesolimbic dopamine system. Meso refers to midbrain; limbic refers to a circuit that’s deep in the brain that signals pleasure when people, say, eat desirable food or engage in sensual activity with someone else; and dopamine is a neurotransmitter. This is a quintessential pleasure circuit that gets activated when people are given the opportunity to behave in generous ways and they take that opportunity.
There are other signaling circuits that are also involved in pleasure—not necessarily sensual or sensory pleasures, but pleasures that are more important in a social context, such as the context of maternal or paternal nurturance behaviors. So it’s not just about getting something that feels good; it’s that I feel good and it has something to do with my shared experience with this other person. The orbital frontal cortex of the brain is another region that’s implicated in driving decisions that are generous or invested in the social welfare of another person. So it’s not simple: As are most processes that are considered higher-order or complex that involve a decision, there are multiple systems that are implicated.
Does generosity require compassion in order to convey benefits to the giver?
I think generosity is a bigger umbrella than compassion, though compassion is certainly a strong incentive for generosity. Compassion is specifically targeted to someone who is suffering, someone who is in pain. But we can be generous without the provocation of pain or suffering. All of us will face this motivation with the holiday season and perhaps are compelled to give gifts to other people who matter to us. We’re not providing gifts to address a pain or a harm. We’re simply hoping to contribute to a person’s well-being.
Does how you feel or your motivation for giving affect whether you benefit?
That’s a wonderful question, because there is literature on the reputational or social status advantages of generosity. Are you being generous in your community because you really want to contribute to the well-being of the people to whom you are being generous, or are you being generous because you want other people to look at you and go, “Wow, that’s a person who deserves my admiration or my respect?” It’s actually something of an emerging literature. I don’t think there’s evidence that being generous for the pure sake of reputation is a disservice to your health and well-being. But I would comfortably hypothesize that you don’t get as much out of that kind of generosity as you do from the kind of generosity where you keep another person’s welfare in mind and leverage the empathic joy you experience in witnessing the benefits of your effort on another person.
Scientists have long wondered why humans display generosity. What do we know about this? Is there an evolutionary advantage to being generous, such as the status or success of the giving group?
If you go back to the beginning in terms of our ability to reproduce as a species, parental caregiving and nurturance is an extraordinarily generous endeavor. As parents raise offspring, we dedicate a tremendous amount of our resources to their welfare. Human infants would not survive without that. So it’s very basic: We need to be generous just in order to raise our offspring. So that’s one way to think about it. And then it’s what we talked about already. When we want to achieve something, we are more likely to be successful if we’re doing it in a cooperative endeavor than we are if we try to do it independently, most of the time. Now, there are certainly things we don’t need other people’s help with. But those are few and far between, compared with the behaviors and resources we need to secure the safety we want to guarantee for ourselves and our communities, which rely on our capacity to cooperate. And cooperation is a generous enterprise.
Can simply thinking about times you were generous provide a benefit?
Humans have a wonderful capacity to “time travel”—to ruminate in a different moment than we’re actually in. And we can both gain from that exercise and also suffer from it. When we gain from ruminating about moments we’re not currently in, we are bringing ourselves back to a time that we really enjoyed. And, in the case of generosity, we enjoyed it because we were serving the welfare of another person and that person was benefitting from it. It’s both a scientific finding but also an easy one to anecdotally connect to. If you imagine the last time you did something that was really heartwarming as you witnessed your efforts make a difference to somebody else, thinking about that experience again can re-invoke those feelings. And it can be something that adds to your sense of purpose and meaning as a human. And in many ways, it can make it easier for you to recover from some difficult moments that you might be encountering in that time. So, being able to think about and reflect on and relive or even write about these experiences can be something that serves your well-being. Obviously ruminating can be bad for us, too; it’s harmful for our mental health if we sit around worrying about things that might not happen or might be over that we can’t do anything about.
For more useful citations on generosity, see the Greater Good in Action website.
This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.
Also see What Is the Science of Happiness?