Five reasons why being kind makes you feel good – according to science

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Generosity boosts reward mechanisms in the brain.

Jo Cutler, University of Sussex and Robin Banerjee, University of Sussex

Everybody can appreciate acts of kindness. But when it comes to explaining why we do them, people often take one of two extreme positions. Some think kindness is something completely selfless that we do out of love and care, while others believe it is just a tool that we cunningly use to become more popular and reap the benefits.

But research shows that being kind to others can actually make us genuinely happy in a number of different ways. We know that deciding to be generous or cooperating with others activates an area of the brain called the striatum. Interestingly, this area responds to things we find rewarding, such as nice food and even addictive drugs. The feel-good emotion from helping has been termed “warm glow” and the activity we see in the striatum is the likely biological basis of that feeling.

Of course, you don’t have to scan brains to see that kindness has this kind of benefit. Research in psychology shows a link between kindness and well-being throughout life, starting at a very young age. In fact, even just reflecting on having been kind in the past may be enough to improve teenagers’ mood. Research has also shown that spending extra money on other people may be more powerful in increasing happiness than spending it on yourself.

But why and how does kindness make us so happy? There are a number of different mechanisms involved, and how powerful they are in making us feel good may depend on our personalities.

1. Contagious smiling

Being kind is likely to make someone smile and if you see that smile for yourself, it might be catchy. A key theory about how we understand other people in neuroscience suggests that seeing someone else show an emotion automatically activates the same areas of the brain as if we experienced that emotion for ourselves.

Wait, why are we laughing again?
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

You may have been in a situation where you find yourself laughing just because someone else is – why not set off that chain of good feelings with a nice surprise for someone?

2. Righting a wrong

The same mechanism also makes us empathise with others when they are feeling negative, which could make us feel down. This is particularly true for close friends and family, as our representations of them in the brain physically overlap with our representations of ourselves. Doing a kind act to make someone who is sad feel better can also make us feel good – partly because we feel the same relief they do and partly because we are putting something right. Although this effect is especially powerful for people we are close to, it can even apply to humanitarian problems such as poverty or climate change. Getting engaged with charities that tackle these issues provide a way to have a positive impact, which in turn improves mood.

3. Making connections

Being kind opens up many different possibilities to start or develop a social connection with someone. Kind acts such as a buying someone a thoughtful present or even just a coffee strengthens friendships, and that in itself is linked to improved mood.

Connected forever?
Leo Hidalgo/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Similarly, charities offer the opportunity to connect with someone on the other side of the world through donating to improve their life. Volunteering also opens up new circles of people to connect with, both other volunteers and those you are helping.

4. A kind identity

Most people would like to think of themselves as a kind person, so acts of kindness help us to demonstrate that positive identity and make us feel proud of ourselves. In one recent study, even children in their first year of secondary school recognised how being kind can make you feel “better as a person … more complete”, leading to feelings of happiness. This effect is even more powerful when the kind act links with other aspects of our personality, perhaps creating a more purposeful feeling. For example, an animal-lover could rescue a bird, an art-lover could donate to a gallery or a retired teacher could volunteer at an after-school group. Research suggests that the more someone identifies with the organisation they volunteer for, the more satisfied they are.

5. Kindness comes back around

Work on the psychology of kindness shows that one out of several possible motivations is reciprocity, the returning of a favour. This can happen directly or indirectly. Someone might remember that you helped them out last time and therefore be more likely to help you in the future. It could also be that one person being kind makes others in the group more kind, which lifts everyone’s spirits. Imagine that you bake cakes for the office and it catches on so someone does it each month. That is a lot more days that you’re getting cakes than providing them.

The ConversationThe story doesn’t end there. Being kind may boost your mood, but research has also shown that being in a good mood can make you more kind. This makes it a wonderful two-way relationship which just keeps giving.

Jo Cutler, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Sussex and Robin Banerjee, Professor of Developmental Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Learning to give

How can charities benefit from the neuroscience of how we learn?

As humans, we don’t often like to acknowledge the similarities between us and animals. Complex social behaviours such as giving to charity are seen as a differentiation between people and other species but is there anything to learn from recognising some of the similarities?

Many animals are capable of learning through experience. One form of learning called “operant conditioning” or “reinforcement learning” works through the pairing of actions with their consequences. If an action leads to positive consequences, it is reinforced and is more likely to be repeated. If something bad happens as a result, the behaviour is less likely to be repeated. A classic example would be training a pet to behave in a certain way by giving treats as rewards for good behaviour and punishments or withdrawing treats for bad behaviour.

Dogs can be trained to do tricks using rewards to encourage certain behaviours. (Image by Pharaoh Hound, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The last thing I want to do is compare charity donors with dogs to be punished for bad behaviour… In fact, this post was motivated by the positive changes in the charity sector towards “donor-centred” fundraising. Getting a reward not only encourages repetition of the behaviour, for example donating, but also feels great. So how can we use the science behind reinforcement learning to make sure donors feel great and keep giving?

One aspect which research has shown to be really important in decision making and learning is time. When comparing different potential outcomes to make a decision, much greater weight is given to those which will happen soon. This is known as “temporal discounting” and applies in a number of areas. Remember the last time you tried to avoid eating chocolate for distant benefits to your health but just couldn’t resist the immediate gratification of the taste? Donors may therefore be more likely to give when they anticipate the reward will be more immediate, such as the huge smile and “thank you” from a face-to-face fundraiser compared to delayed thanks from an online gift.

Social rewards in many forms can be powerful in shaping behaviour

Thank Yous are one form of reward but of course there is also the positive impact the donation has on the charity’s work and for its beneficiaries. Due to the nature of the complex issues charities address, this impact may be far away in time. For example, improved educational outcomes leading to better quality of life or research progress towards curing a disease. There are many reasons these benefits will motivate donations but it may also be beneficial to point out the shorter-term impacts.

Once a decision has been made, the time between action and reward is very influential in establishing a relationship between the two. If you threw a ball at a target and it fell over, you’d feel you’d knocked it over with the throw; if your ball hit then the target fell over a minute later, you probably wouldn’t feel like you had caused it to fall. For donors to associate the act of giving with the good feeling they get when thanked or told about the amazing impact their donation has made, it’s important to make this as soon as possible after the donation. As immediacy may often be difficult, when the thank you is received, it might be beneficial to mentally take the donor back to the moment they gave as much as possible. This could be done for gifts set up with street fundraisers with an image of the fundraiser they spoke to for example.

In neuroscience research with humans and animals, the concepts I’ve mentioned in this post have been linked to dopamine, a “neurotransmitter” or chemical messenger signal between neurons. For a long time, dopamine was seen as the reward molecule with more dopamine equated with more feel good feeling. However, many studies have now suggested that the role of dopamine may be more nuanced, instead describing it as the difference between predictions and reality. In animals trained to expect a reward following a stimulus, neurons simply maintained their normal patterns when the reward was received. However, an unexpected or bigger-than-expected reward increased how quickly they sent signals. In contrast, when a reward was expected and not received, the neurons were less active and in fact, a lack of expected reward decreases the behaviour.

Some key areas and pathways in the brain which process reward. (By Oscar Arias-Carrión, Xanic Caraza-Santiago, Sergio Salgado-Licona, Mohamed Salama, Sergio Machado, Antonio Egidio Nardi, Manuel Menéndez-González and Eric Murillo-Rodríguez. [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
The expectations of how a charity responds to a donation are complex and will vary between people. However, at a basic biological level, if expectations are not met, this will be damaging to the chances of someone repeating giving. To ensure your donor feels great, a quick thank you which goes above and beyond expectations and suggests the impact their gift is already having could be very powerful in promoting repeated giving. If you already knew that was the case, now you know why!

Next time on the Charitable Brain – when and why might thanking donors decrease giving? Subscribe so you don’t miss it!

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The generous psychology of giving to Comic Relief

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Jo Cutler, University of Sussex

There is clearly something very funny about Red Nose Day. The biennial event of the charity Comic Relief raises vast sums of money for good causes. It also attracts millions of television viewers keen to watch famous people make them laugh – and donate cash. Red Nose Days have so far raised over £1billion. The Conversation

So how does Comic Relief achieve such feats of fund raising? Whether they realise it or not, the organisers have managed to tap in to several factors which, research shows, boost our desire to give.

To begin with, big events such as Comic Relief benefit from their own success, in that donating becomes a behavioural “normality”. We have a sense that everyone else around us – at home, at work, in our social lives – is doing it. When an act is widely considered to be morally desirable, as with giving to charity, there is also a strong sense that people close to you would approve of you donating. This is known as an “injunctive norm”.

But as well as being influenced by the actions and opinions of our friends, family and colleagues, we are also swayed by the behaviour of people or organisations we don’t know. This is particularly true if we trust and like them. The celebrities and brands involved with Comic Relief may increase donations through this mechanism, too.

Celebrities in particular are often well liked, so their opinions are considered trustworthy and valuable. Large, well established and popular charities such as Oxfam supporting (and benefiting from) Red Nose Day adds an element of expertise, building the idea that giving to Comic Relief is a genuinely good way to help others.

The sense that everyone else is getting involved can also lead to people asking “Why not donate?” instead of “Why should I donate?” This change in the framing of the question we ask ourselves is more likely to result in the behaviour taking place. If we need to find a reason not to donate, giving becomes the default response.

Once we have decided to go ahead and donate, other people can influence how much we give. By regularly announcing (to cheers from the studio audience) the fund raising totals of individuals or companies, Comic Relief presenters provide a benchmark for others to base their donations on. They develop a sense of friendly competition over who can raise the most.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be Comic Relief without the comedy. Some research suggests being in a good mood, in this case from laughing, leads to people feeling more generous and making larger donations. But even if the link is not so straightforward, it’s likely that mixing hard hitting appeals with comedy prevents viewers from experiencing empathy fatigue or “burn-out” and emotionally (or literally) switching off.

Feel good giving.

It’s an established finding from neuroscientific research that giving to charity activates areas of our brain which respond positively to rewards such as food, suggesting it simply feels good to give. Feeling a warm glow from giving could be enhanced if we are also in a good mood from our favourite celebrities doing something amusing. If we attribute this pleasant feeling to making a donation, it makes us more likely to give again in future.

Raising money is funny

One key reason for giving to charity is to have a positive impact on the people who receive the donation. It makes sense then, that the bigger the impact, the more we are inclined to give. A single donation to charity can sometimes feel like a drop in the ocean. But Comic Relief may also benefit from the fact that because they raise such a large sum of money, each person contributing feels like they are part of something bigger which will really make a difference.

This sense of making a difference is even stronger when we hear individual people’s stories, something Comic Relief does very powerfully with their moving filmed appeals. Having so many people in need could be overwhelming if it weren’t for the vast amounts of money being raised, which makes the viewer optimistic that the people featured in these films can actually be supported.

And supported they have been – for over 30 years. Pointing out the psychological mechanisms behind our generosity is not meant to seem uncharitable. In reality, everything we do or think has an underlying psychological explanation – it’s just that most of the time we are not aware of it.

Giving to charity is something most people believe is a good thing to do. But for much of the year, our daily lives and worries get in the way of remembering the people who need our help. If behavioural norms, some comedy and a nudge of positive feelings can motivate me to actually pick up my smartphone and donate, then personally I’m more than happy to be influenced by all those funny red noses.

Jo Cutler, PhD Candidate in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How does your brain know what’s going on in my brain?

In this post, “mirror neurons” – a hugely influential but controversial discovery.

Here is a picture of my brain in all its squishy, creepy glory…

Yes, it really is my brain

People often use the phrase “getting inside someone’s head” for understanding them. Do you feel like you know me better from seeing inside my head? Have you learned anything from looking at my brain?

Unless you’re a neuroscientist, probably not (and if you are a neuroscientist I hope what you’ve learned is good news for me!). But if we were interacting face to face and you could only see the outside of my head, you’d probably learn quite a lot about me.

It’s easy to take for granted quite how good we are at recognising what other people are thinking or feeling because we probably pay more attention to times we’ve got it wrong (e.g. someone has lied to us) or found it difficult (you just cannot work out why that person seems angry at you!). If you saw me reaching over to my glass of water and picking it up, you’d know I was thirsty or at least wanted to take a drink.

This might seem obvious but something being obvious is probably a sign our brains are very good at it or used to doing it. If I asked you how you know I want a drink when I pick up a glass, you might answer that when you’re thirsty you pick up a glass of water, so you’re applying the same logic to my actions. According to an influential theory in social neuroscience, this is actually how the brain works at the level of individual neurons.

Like penicillin, radioactivity and Viagra, “mirror neurons” were actually discovered by accident. An Italian neuroscience lab were running experiments measuring activity from individual neurons in monkey’s brains. This requires inserting very thin electrodes into the brain which measure the neuron “firing”, conducting electrical pulses. The aim of the experiment was to learn more about how these neurons determined the hand movements of the monkeys as they picked up pieces of food.

This baby monkey imitating a human was too cute to leave out (credits here)

As part of running the experiment, the human researchers were also picking up the pieces of food. Remarkably, they noticed that some neurons which fired when the monkey picked up the food, also fired when they observed the experimenter doing the same action. Like all good accidental discoveries, the team realised this was something meaningful and exciting and went on to do further tests. These showed the neurons were “mirroring” the actions of the person they were watching, as if the monkey itself was doing the action.

This theory could explain that overwhelming urge to yawn you often get when watching someone else yawn because seeing their yawn activates the same part of your brain which controls your yawning. Another classic example is the sense of feeling pain yourself when seeing someone else get hurt. Using neuroimaging, it has been shown that the same parts of the brain are active when we experience pain or imagine ourselves in pain as is activated by viewing someone else in pain. There is also evidence from fMRI research that areas of the human brain equivalent to those identified in the monkeys respond when we imitate others’ actions.

Feeling uncomfortable? (Image under CC 2.0 source here)

Obviously, these findings have led to some researchers claiming mirror neurons are integral to empathy and understanding others. There is also arguably some evidence the “mirror system” is disrupted in disorders of understanding others such as autism. However, this theory is far from accepted and many researchers strongly disagree. As always, some of the disagreement is around definitions and the concept of overlap between experiences I have and experiences you have in the brain is more widely accepted than some of the specific details of mirror neurons.

I think one reason the theory appeals is because it makes sense from an efficiency point of view. There are many ways in which the brain takes shortcuts to save processing time and the physical space different functions take up. Very early in evolution, the brain developed circuits to control our own actions so why develop whole separate circuits to understand the same actions of others?

Imagine you own a factory which produces white bread and you start needing to also make brown bread at different times. Would you build a whole other factory? You’d probably use the same equipment with different ingredients going in and different packaging when the bread comes out so you can tell which is which. This simplistic analogy not only demonstrates the need for efficiency, but also the crucial role of connectivity and information flow in the brain. If the whole procedure, ingredients, baking process and packaging, was the same the loaves would be indistinguishable.

In the same way, our brains have ways of telling my actions are my own and your actions are separate and, as a key criticism of the mirror neuron theory argues, a single neuron alone couldn’t do this. Obviously, the neural input (ingredients) are different, I feel my own movements or pain internally but get information about your movements or pain through vision or hearing. However, if we simply differentiated between ourselves and others, this would suggest we would have an equal understanding of, and empathy for all other people.

Clearly, this is not the case as factors such as how similar or close we are to the person and how we observe or hear of their situation influence how much we can put ourselves in their shoes. Future posts will consider some of these ways in which our understanding and empathy can be biased.

The reason you hate Trump you’ve probably never heard of

I’ve just got back from an anti-Trump demo in Brighton, England. A few thousand people were out on a Monday night, in a city thousands of miles from Washington DC, but where 1 in 20 residents signed a petition to ban Trump coming to the UK. 

People are angry and rightly so.

In the first week of his presidency, Trump has (illegally) banned people from travelling to America based on race or religion, suspended the refugee resettlement program and stopped foreign aid to schemes which are in any way linked to abortion. What do all of these policies have in common? You can probably think of multiple similarities, the descriptions of which may include swearing (there was certainly lots of “f’ing outrageous” at the demo). 

One similarity you may not have considered is that in all cases something has been lost through being banned or stopped. The positives associated with immigration, helping some of the most desperate and giving women support when they need it most have been taken away. 

Brighton city centre 30/01/2017, author’s own photo


In response, people are starting, signing and spreading petitions, organising events, making signs, giving up their time to attend demos, tweeting and generally talking about these issues. But before last week, not many people were taking any of these actions to try and increase the number of people who could come to their country via immigration or asylum or raise money for the causes they clearly believe are important.

I’m in no way trying to criticise the actions people are taking now. There’s something amazing about singing “refugees are welcome here” in your city as thousands of others chant the same all over the country and all over the world. However, decades of psychological research have shown we all have biases in our thinking and decision making and the prosocial social decisions we make are no different.

Back in the 1970’s Daniel Kahneman (incidentally an immigrant to America who escaped the Nazi regime) and Amos Tversky (also an Israeli who lived, worked and died in America) turned economic theory upside down by demonstrating in a series of experiments that people’s decisions were often irrational. A key part of their work, which later won Kahneman a Nobel prize, was showing that people find losing things more aversive than how positive they find gaining the same amount. For example, how upset you feel about accidentally dropping £10 is likely to be stronger than how happy you’d feel if you found £10. It has even been claimed that the pain of losing something is twice the joy felt when gaining it.

Back to the world of politics and this “loss aversion” could partly explain, for example why British people will fight harder to defend the NHS than Americans campaign to get public healthcare. Incidentally, Obamacare got more popular when people were set to lose it as Trump became president. It could also be one reason you’re feeling so angry at the other things Trump is taking away, which you may not have given as much thought to in the past.

Graph showing loss aversion (a.k.a Prospect Theory) for the mathematically minded. A £10 gain on the x-axis corresponds to less joy than the pain of a £10 loss


Those pretty pleased with Trump’s achievements certainly have not escaped this bias. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign and the campaigns of other far-right politicians across the world also focus on loss, this time to create fear. The threat from immigration of losing jobs, homes, values, culture or even lives in the case of terrorism has been exaggerated, not just by these politicians but also in the irrational brains of voters. Avoiding these losses becomes far more important to people than the gains in diversity, skills, economic grown and many more factors which come with immigration.

All of the issues I’ve mentioned are of course far more complex than simply weighing up gains and losses. Political views have a complex psychology which we don’t yet understand and there are plenty of other reasons people are particularly motivated to take action at the moment (including the need to show this “populism” isn’t popular and make Trump’s first days in office as unsuccessful as possible).

But loss aversion is a well-established way in which we are irrational, so what can we do about it? I doubt that armed with knowing about this bias you’ll be able to reason with Trump supporters but feel free to give it a try. And I’m certainly not saying stop all the protesting and tweeting and petitioning in response to what he’s currently taking away. If anything, use your new understanding of loss aversion to get all your friends protesting too by emphasising what they and others stand to lose.

The Brighton protest which spread on social media, author’s own photo


Rather than decreasing what you’re doing to prevent losses in immigration, support for refugees and aid, why not also focus on things you want to gain? Surely if you’d fight for something not to be taken away it’s worth fighting to get more of it? Don’t just try and stop things getting worse but try and make them better! That way you can focus on the positives, not just the negatives, and feel smug you’re being far more rational.

Is it true altruism if you enjoy it?

Now we’re getting towards the end of January, Christmas may seem like a distant memory but cast your minds back for a moment. How did you feel when handing over your present to someone you’re close to when you were confident it was something they were going to love? Excited? Happy? Appreciated?

If you did experience any of these positive emotions does that mean your generosity wasn’t a morally good act (even if the present was really expensive!)?

Immanuel Kant

According to some strands of philosophy, it does. For those who agree with deontological theories, most associated with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, acts are only moral if motivated by a sense of duty. There is much discussion on what qualifies as providing such moral motivation which I won’t go into here. However, Kant is clear on what doesn’t count. Acts are not moral if motivated by a desire for an emotional feeling or certain outcome (the opposing moral theory of consequentialism, better-known as utilitarianism).

So anything we do because it feels good or because it will have a positive consequence for others can’t (or Kant…) be moral. For example, a father who takes his child to the park is only acting in a moral way if it is out of a sense of his duties as a father. It is not moral if he does it because he knows he will enjoy spending time with his child or because he knows it will help his child’s development.

While the debate between deontologists and consequentialists may never be resolved, in my opinion, this is increasingly a debate about how we should act. Meanwhile, psychology and neuroscience may offer more objective answers about how we act and why we act this way. It is only by understanding both elements that we can start to close the gap between how we act and how we should act.

The trolley problem – would you pull the lever to kill one person instead of five?

When faced with a moral dilemma such as the trolley problem we may feel it is worthwhile or necessary to consciously think through our moral duties or the consequences of our actions. However, to do this with every decision we ever make would be far too time-consuming and cognitively exhausting.

From stereotyping to cognitive biases, there is increasing evidence that our brains often do what is most efficient, sometimes unconsciously or automatically, even if it does not lead to the best action. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have provided data which supports their claim that moral decisions are made based on emotion and intuition. Conscious reasoning comes after to provide justification for the decision which has been made but feels like this is what determines the decision.

The idea of a reptile or monkey part of our brain having to be restrained from wreaking havoc by our human brain areas is exaggerated and simplistic but can be a useful metaphor to consider. Parts of the brain which we share with other animals evolved to make very quick decisions in life or death situations so has been labelled the ‘fast route’.  This is in contrast to the ‘slow route’ to decision making which involves the deliberative conscious thinking we would traditionally associate with moral reasoning. It is likely that we overestimate how much we use the slow route because we like to think that we are rational, when in fact the fast route may dominate in many situations.

Reptile brain cartoon by Stuart McMillen – page 14 of comic Supernormal Stimuli

Getting back to giving, we now have over a decade of evidence from neuroimaging studies that being prosocial, even when it costs you, activates areas of the brain also active when we receive primitive rewards such as food or see sex-related stimuli. If Kant was still around today this could be grounds for saying prosocial behaviour and generosity cannot be moral because it feels good.

Even within psychology distinctions have been made between “pure” and “impure” altruism with the “warm glow” reward of giving being considered an impure motive, compared to only caring about the outcome for others (in line with utilitarian theories).

All of this gives enjoying giving a pretty bad name. However, in the real world, I think those who experience happiness from being generous are considered moral people and we expect them to continue this prosocial behaviour. This fits with the role of reward activity in the brain to reinforce the behaviour which caused it, such as giving to charity again if it felt good.

I’m sure the charity shop volunteer who loves raising money for others will do a much better job than someone who is there from a sense of duty. And when we think of a friend, partner or family member doing something kind for us, this feels much more genuine if we know they enjoyed it, rather than feeling they had to.

So maybe don’t listen to the deontologists or anyone who tells you that being prosocial only counts if it feels like a chore. Especially with what is going on in politics at the moment maybe we all need to experience how good it can feel to be nice.