When you do good, you feel good (generally speaking), but it turns out that being genuinely generous with others could have positive impacts on your health. Researchers took a look at how the act of generosity affects the brain, and the results were impressive. Not only did they notice multiple changes, but one in particular looks like it reduces stress and anxiety.
At the University of Pittsburgh, study authors Tristen K. Ignaki, Ph.D, and Lauren P. Ross chose to study two forms of generous support: targeted and untargeted.
One experiment involved 45 participants, with each being told they could win money for someone close to them in need, for a charity, or for themselves. Afterwards their brains were studied with an MRI. While under the scanner, participants were asked to rate emotions based on facial expressions. The act of generosity increased activity in regions of the brain associated with parental care in mammals, not surprising considering the offer of kindness is equated with care.
What really intrigued the authors is that it also decreased activity in the amygdala, the region that processes emotions, which led the team to believe that generosity could help diminish anxiety.
In moments of distress, the amygdala is activity to send a signal to the hypothalamus of fight or flight. It's that unpleasant moment when stress hits its peak. So the idea that being generous could actually cue the amygdala to chill could mean the compassionate action has a calming effect on our health.
In a second experiment, 382 folks talked about their own "support-giving behaviors," essentially how they help family, friends, and the people in their community. Again, they were asked to perform an "emotional rating task" (where they rate facial expressions) while under an MRI.
Those who talked happily about offering support to others showed less brain activity in the amygdala. Others who didn't have the same experience of being generous didn't show any effect on this region of the brain.
So, really, while being generous and doing something positive for others should be done without expecting anything in return, our brains give us a little gift anyway. We could all use a little less stress in our lives, and if we can achieve that at the same time we help others, then that's just a win-win.