A new study has linked life satisfaction to the chemistry in our brains. People who release more neurochemical oxytocin are kinder to others and tend to be more satisfied with their lives. Furthermore, oxytocin release increases with age, which shows why, on average, people worry more as they get older. These findings are consistent with many religious philosophies, where one’s life satisfaction is increased by helping others.
People whose brains release more of the neurochemical oxytocin are kinder to others and more satisfied with their lives. This is the finding of new research, published in Frontiers in behavioral neurosciencewho also found that oxytocin release increases with age, showing why, on average, people worry more as they get older.
“Our study findings are consistent with many religions and philosophies, where one’s life satisfaction is increased by helping others,” reported first author Dr. Paul J Zak of Claremont Graduate University.
“The participants in our study who released the most oxytocin were the most generous with charity when given the opportunity, and they engaged in many other helping behaviors. The change in oxytocin was also positively related to participants’ empathy, religious involvement, and gratitude.”
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Oxytocin is a neurochemical widely known for its role in social attachment, interpersonal trust, and generosity. Zak and his colleagues wanted to know if oxytocin release changed with age, as other neurochemicals that influence feelings and behavior do.
“We have previously shown a link between how kind and generous people are, known as prosocial behaviors, and the release of oxytocin,” Zak said. “Older people spend more time volunteering and donating a higher proportion of their income to charity than younger people, so we wanted to see if there was a neurochemical basis for these behaviors.”
The researchers recruited more than 100 people for the study, ranging in age from 18 to 99. They were each shown a video about a young child with cancer, which previous work had confirmed induces the release of oxytocin in the brain. Blood was taken before and after the video to measure the change in oxytocin.
“Participants had the option to donate part of their study earnings to a childhood cancer charity, and this was used to measure their immediate prosocial behaviour. We also collect data on your emotional states to provide insights into your overall life satisfaction,” Zak explained.
Be kind, love life
“The people who released the most oxytocin in the experiment were not only more generous with charity, they also performed many other helping behaviors. This is the first time that a clear change in oxytocin has been linked to past prosocial behaviors,” Zak reported.
“We also found that oxytocin release increased with age and was positively associated with life satisfaction.”
The finding that helping behaviors improve quality of life is consistent with many religious traditions and philosophies. Serving others appears to prime the brain to release more oxytocin in a positive feedback loop of increased empathy and gratitude.
Zak would like to repeat this study in a more ethnically and geographically diverse sample of people to see if the findings hold for different cultures.
“We would also like to perform longer-term measurement of neurophysiology using non-invasive wearable technologies to see which specific activities increase people’s satisfaction with life,” he concluded.