Contrary to the common notion that paying taxes can be a painful experience, researchers at the University of Oregon say the practice actually may trigger feelings of satisfaction and happiness.

"Paying taxes can make citizens happy," Ulrich Mayr, a professor of psychology, said in a release accompanying the study in the Friday issue of Science.

"People are, to varying degrees, pure altruists. On top of that, they like that warm glow they get from charitable giving. Until now, we couldn't trace that in the brain."

The study by Mayr and his colleagues is titled Neural Responses to Taxation and Voluntary Giving Reveal Motives for Charitable Donations.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology, the researchers observed the brain activity of 19 women who were given a balance of $100 each. The researchers created the effect of taxation by making mandatory withdrawals from their account. The withdrawn money was actually sent to a food bank's account.

Participants also made additional choices about whether to give away more money or keep it for themselves.

2 brain areas activated during test

The study found that two reward-related areas of the brain - the caudate nucleus and the nucleus accumbens - lit up during the taxation test. These areas are typically activated when a person experiences feelings of satisfaction, as they do after having eaten a meal.

"The fact that mandatory transfers to a charity elicit activity in reward-related areas suggests that even mandatory taxation can produce satisfaction for taxpayers," the study said.

When the participants voluntarily gave the charity more money, the activation area was larger - a finding that, according to the researchers, sheds light on why people make donations.

"These transfers are associated with neural activation similar to that which comes from receiving money for oneself," the study said.

Mayr said the findings show people are willing to pay their taxes as long as they support good causes. The authors noted, however, that the results may have differed if people had been presented with a tax that seemed less fair or benevolent.