New UK research has found that the warm glow we feel after helping others is real, with brain scans showing that the reward centre in the brain is activated after an act of kindness.

Carried out by psychologists at the University of Sussex and published in the journal NeuroImage, the new meta-analysis included 36 existing studies with a total of 1,150 participants who had undergone brain fMRI scans while making kind decisions.

The researchers analysed for the first time what happens in the brain when people are kind because of genuine altruism – which is when there’s nothing for them to gain from it – and when they act with strategic kindness – when they hope for something in return.

The findings showed that the reward areas of the brain are more active, meaning they use up more oxygen, when people act with strategic kindness.

However, acts of altruism in which there is no hope of personal gain also activated the reward centre. Moreover, some brain regions were actually more active during altruistic acts of kindness, suggesting that there is something unique about being kind with no hope of gaining something in return.

“We know that people can choose to be kind because they like feeling like they are a ‘good person’, but also that people can choose to be kind when they think there might be something ‘in it’ for them such as a returned favour or improved reputation,” said lead author Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn.

“Some people might say that ‘why’ we give does not matter, as long as we do. However, what motivates us to be kind is both fascinating and important. If, for example, governments can understand why people might give when there’s nothing in it for them, then they can understand how to encourage people to volunteer, donate to charity or support others in their community.”

“The same issues could also apply when we think about interactions between family, friends, colleagues or strangers on a one-to-one basis,” added co-author Jo Cutler. “For example, if after a long day helping a friend move house, they hand you a fiver, you could end up feeling undervalued and less likely to help again.

“A hug and kind words however might spark a warm glow and make you feel appreciated. We found some brain regions were more active during altruistic, compared to strategic, generosity so it seems there is something special about situations where our only motivation to give to others is to feel good about being kind.” – AFP Relaxnews