Brain chemical linked to kindness and generosity in old age
A fascinating new study has suggested a link between increased generosity in older age and levels of a neurochemical called oxytocin. The research found older people with higher levels of oxytocin were more likely to donate money to charity and be satisfied with their lives.
“We have previously shown a link between how kind and generous people are, known as prosocial behaviors, and the release of oxytocin,” said first author on the new study Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University. “Seniors spend more time volunteering and donate a larger proportion of their income to charity than do younger people, so we wanted to see if there was a neurochemical basis for these behaviors.”
To explore the link between prosocial behavior, age, and oxytocin the research team recruited around 100 adults with ages spanning 18 to 99. The subjects were paid a small amount for their participation in the research and shown a short video featuring a father talking about his two-year-old son, who is dying of brain cancer. Prior studies have found this video effectively stimulates the release of oxytocin when viewed.
“Participants had the option to donate some of their earnings from the study to a childhood cancer charity, and this was used to measure their immediate prosocial behavior,” Zak explained. “We also collected data on their emotional states, to provide information on their overall satisfaction with life.”
The findings revealed older adults released more oxytocin in response to watching the video compared to younger subjects. And those older adults with higher levels of oxytocin generally reported greater degrees of life satisfaction.
“People who released the most oxytocin in the experiment were not only more generous to charity, but also performed many other helping behaviors,” said Zak. “This is the first time a distinct change in oxytocin has been related to past prosocial behaviors.”
The study was not able to establish a direct causal link between oxytocin and generous behavior. Instead, the researchers hypothesize oxytocin plays more of a bi-directional role in the positive feedback loop between empathetic behavior and chemically-enhanced feelings of life satisfaction.
According to Zak this oxytocin-enhanced feedback loop most likely plays a role in the consistently observed link between charitable religious behavior and increased life satisfaction. Helping others tends to make you feel good by triggering the release of oxytocin, which then enhances sensations of empathy leading to more prosocial behaviors.
“The findings of our study are consistent with many religions and philosophies, where satisfaction with one's life is enhanced by helping others,” said Zak. “Participants in our study who released the most oxytocin were more generous to charity when given the opportunity and performed many other helping behaviors. The change in oxytocin was also positively related to participants' empathy, religious participation, and gratitude.”
So the million dollar question … Could administering oxytocin to older adults improve feelings of life satisfaction? Or could synthetic oxytocin enhance prosocial behaviors and make people more kind or generous to others?
In the new study Zak and his team indicate these questions are a little premature considering how little is currently known about endogenous oxytocin release in senior citizens. It is more likely, according to the researchers, that oxytocin is simply one of many factors influencing prosocial behavior in old age.
There have been a small number of studies looking at the effects of intranasal oxytocin on older adults and the results have been decidedly mixed. Some studies have found oxytocin improves mood in older men but not older women, while other experiments found no acute impact on mood.
So are we on the verge of some brave new world where drugs help us act more kindly and generously as we get older? Not really. More pragmatically the study concludes these findings are a reminder of the benefits in maintaining social activity as we get older. If we know social interaction triggers oxytocin release, and we know endogenous oxytocin release in old age enhances feelings of life satisfaction, then the value of socializing is even more important in our senior years.
The new study was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.