Regardless of race, religion, or socio-cultural upbringing, it is a universal truth that human beings gain pleasure from helping others. This relationship is not purely anecdotal. In fact, psychologists and sociologists have long studied this phenomenon in various cultural settings and consistently came to the same conclusions (Aknin et al., 2010; Aknin et al., 2015; Konow & Earley, 2008). It is only in recent years that we have gained insight into the hormonal and neurological mechanisms that explain the connection between personal satisfaction and generosity.
There are several hormonal pathways thought to be involved in prosocial behavior. Studies on testosterone have shown that increased levels of this hormone lead to changes in cortical brain structure resulting in reduced empathy and generosity (Zak et al., 2009; Ou et al., 2021). Additionally, cortisol, the stress hormone, has been shown to have an inverse relationship with generosity (Soares et al., 2010). Lastly, experiments involving the administration of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, have found that oxytocin greatly increases the likelihood that an individual will engage in prosocial behavior (Marsh et al., 2020; Soares et al., 2010).
Recent advances in neuroimaging have allowed researchers to further investigate areas of the brain involved in both prosocial decision-making and pleasure. Scientists have found that the temporal-parietal junction (TPJ) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) are most active during generous exchanges. Considering that both of these brain regions are thought to be involved in the integration of one's own emotional valence and the emotions of others into conscious awareness. Additionally, signals from the TPJ modulate activity in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is thought to play a role in the rewarding sensation one feels when giving (Park et al., 2017).
So why do humans have these natural mechanisms that encourage them to be generous? Wouldn’t giving of oneself hurt survival? Well, these biological circuits help to reinforce altruistic behavior, because humans as a species benefit when they work together. Helping each other is imperative to our survival and can even supersede our own personal desires. And that my friend, is why helping others feels so good!