The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable as the act of receiving, if not more so. A brain-imaging study led by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain—i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex)—are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves!
Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves. In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money; half of them were instructed to spend the money on themselves, the other half to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, which was published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.
This is true even for infants. A study by Lara Aknin and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that even in children as young as two, giving treats to others increases the givers’ happiness more than receiving treats themselves. (Greater Good, UC Berkeley)