How To Be Happier in 2018: Be More Generous & Be Grateful

It’s November, and time to be thankful for all we have been blessed with in 2017. At AdventureWomen, we take generosity very seriously as we never take for granted all the opportunities we have been given to meet and travel the world enjoying so many incredible treasures.

The Link Between Happiness and Altruism

On our Nepal hiking adventure, 2017.

Researchers Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich recently completed a fascinating study investigating the link between altruism and happiness.

50 participants were promised a sum of money that they would receive in the next few weeks and were supposed to spend. Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people. This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else.

Half of the study participants committed to spending the money on someone they knew (experimental group, promise of generosity), while the other half committed to spending the money on themselves (control group).

While the study participants were making decisions about how much to spend and on whom, the researchers measured activity in three brain areas: in the temporoparietal junction, where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed; in the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness; and in the orbitofrontal cortex, where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes. These three brain areas interacted differently, depending on whether the study participants had committed to generosity or selfishness. The participants were then asked about their happiness before and after the experiment.

Two fascinating conclusions from the 2017 study:

#1: Intending to be generous alone causes neural changes

Simply promising to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain and intensified the interaction between this area and the area associated with happiness. “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” says Tobler.

#2: Even a little generosity makes people happier

In their experiments, the researchers found that people who behaved generously were happier afterwards than those who behaved more selfishly. Interestingly, the amount of generosity did not influence the increase in contentment. Just being a little more generous, increased contentment just as much as being more altruistic.

In Tanzania, meeting local children in neighboring villages brings out smiles all around!

The Link Between Feeling Grateful and Happiness

Research has also shown a strong relationship between feeling grateful and happiness, optimism and feelings of greater well-being.

“Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and this effect holds for the next six months” notes Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor. Other studies have shown that gratitude increases patience and willpower, helps keep you calm, and can even boost employee morale.

A 2015 brain imaging study led by researchers at Indiana University led by Prathik Kini recruited 43 subjects suffering from anxiety or depression. Half of this group were assigned a simple gratitude exercise — writing letters of thanks to people in their lives — and three months later all underwent brain scans.

During these brain scans, the subjects participated in a gratitude task in which they were told a benefactor had given them a sum of money and were asked whether they’d like to donate a portion of the funds to charity as an expression of their gratitude.

Those who agreed to donate money showed a particular pattern of activity in their brains and reported feeling more grateful even two weeks after the task than members of the control group. And even more surprising, months later, their brains still showed more gratitude-related brain activity in scans. This suggests that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset and the easier this feeling comes when you experience situations involving gratitude. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

Snow angels decorate the slopes on our 2017 Big Sky Ski Trip in Montana