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a man with a gray beard and hair paints a refinished dresser

If there were a Helpers Hall of Fame, my older brother would’ve been inducted years ago. Moving? He’d show up. Engine running a little rough? He’d get under the hood. During a recent weekend stay with friends at their cabin, he noticed the door to the guest bathroom was not fitting properly, so he removed it, loaded it into his car, and brought it home to repair it. “Only took about 15 minutes,” he reported.

The Helper has been this way as long as I can remember, though it seems this urge has intensified in the years since he retired. This past summer, for example, some friends drove up from Louisville in their RV for a visit. After lounging around for a few days, The Helper and his wife headed to Washington State to visit their son and daughter-in-law with their Louisville pals tagging along. When I asked him how he enjoyed the visit, he shrugged. “The kids were working most of the time,” he noted.

“So, what did you and your friends do while you were there?”

“The deck needed replacing,” he explained. “So, Larry and I tore it down.”

Part of this is due to his restless nature. (He once turned down my offer to loan him my dog-eared copy of How to Be Idle, confessing that the concept was too weird.) But it’s also highly likely that he gains something by giving. There’s the “helper’s high” that researchers have been documenting for years, and more recent evidence that those who experience what’s known as “felt obligation” — helping others despite knowing it may put themselves at a disadvantage — exhibit more resilience when confronted with their own challenges.

At least you’d hope so.

A University of Birmingham study published earlier this year in Nature Communications suggests that older adults are not as adept as their younger counterparts at learning to make choices that benefit themselves over others. The older and younger groups of study participants were asked to make a series of selections on a computer screen that resulted in monetary rewards for themselves or someone else. On average, the younger volunteers were quicker to figure out how to pad their own pockets.

This is not a result of age-related cognitive sluggishness, notes lead study author Patricia Lockwood, PhD, a senior research fellow in the School of Psychology. It’s more due to a charitable inclination among older folks.

“We need to make decisions and learn all the time based on the positive or negative feedback we receive. This allows us to optimize our choices to choose the best course of action in the future from many possible alternatives,” Lockwood explains. “We find that older adults are worse than younger adults at learning from positive feedback on their own behavior. However, surprisingly, when making choices that give positive feedback — money — to another person, older adults are just as good as younger adults.”

This can be seen as unselfishness, certainly, but it can also drift gradually into a sort of martyr syndrome. The Helper has been known to grouse from time to time about not feeling enough appreciation from certain beneficiaries of his good works. And then there’s my old buddy, The King of Nordeast, who spends a couple of Saturdays every month driving 90 minutes south to help out his widowed cousin and likes to vent about how much of a bother it all is.

“You’re the nicest guy in the entire Western Hemisphere,” I mentioned the other day as he complained about her numerous phone calls and generally needy personality. “She’s lonely and needs someone to talk to.”

He didn’t disagree but seemed flummoxed about how to extract himself from the commitment.

“Well, you could just say no,” I suggested.

“Yeah, I suppose I could,” he admitted.

There’s a difference between being nice and being kind, after all. As Randy Taran, founder of Project Happiness, put it in a recent EL piece, “Niceness has to do with your reputation and how people see you.” Sometimes, the kindest gesture you can make is to allow someone to confront their difficulties on their own rather than offer unending assistance.

The conversation paused and shifted direction.

“Do you have a rake?” The King asked after a moment.

“Sure, do you need one?”

“Does it travel?” he added.


“You know I tore my bicep, which makes it difficult to rake leaves.”

“That’s why you raise children; they care for you in your dotage,” I noted. “I’m sure your daughter will be glad to lend a hand.”

Sure she would.”

“Besides, you know I’m not that nice.”

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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