Being generous makes you feel good. The “warm glow” effect is well-known, and studies have even shown how different areas of the brain “light up” on functional MRIs (fMRIs) when a person performs a generous act. However, a fascinating new study, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, took this research one step further. It found that not only does generosity have a powerful effect on the brain — and one’s emotional health — but that one specific type of generosity in particular can help to reduce stress and anxiety.
The study compared “targeted” generosity — defined as giving to a family member or loved one who is in need — to “untargeted” generosity — giving money to an organization or to a person whom you do not know well.
The difference in brain activity was significant, particularly in the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped brain structure that processes emotions. In stressful circumstances the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus telling the brain to enter the well-known fight or flight mode. Increased activation of the amygdala is associated with anxiety, phobia and even PTSD.
Giving targeted support decreased the activity of the amygdala, while giving untargeted support had no effect. The results of this study indicate that while generosity is always beneficial — both to the giver and to the recipient — targeted generosity has the unique health benefit of helping a person reduce stress and anxiety.
The bottom line is that if giving makes you happy, giving to those closest to you or to those with whom you have a strong emotional connection, will not only increase your happiness, it will even confer health benefits for you.