- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Aging and Altruism

The older we get, the more our brains reward us for charitable behavior, according to a new study. In my case, however, bailing out our kids feels more like repaying a long-overdue debt.

In the early days of our marriage, My Lovely Wife and I settled into a charming Bohemian lifestyle, which is another way of saying we were always broke. MLW, at least, was gainfully employed at a small tailor shop; I had decided — in a manner that was to define my career for the next few decades — to quit a low-wage newspaper job and make it big as a freelance writer.

This was at a time when you could find a decent two-bedroom apartment in a sketchy Minneapolis neighborhood for $185 a month and fill a bag of groceries at the co-op for $20, so a young couple could generally get by on a wing and a prayer. The prayers came in handy when you fell behind on the heating bill or you got a call from the Internal Revenue Service because you had decided that paying income taxes to support an imperialist regime was a betrayal of your core values. In our case, those prayers were generally answered by our parents.

It’s not like a lot of money changed hands — we were mostly left on our own to deal with the gas company and the I.R.S. — but MLW’s folks gave us their old car when they bought a new one and handled the insurance payments for several years. My mother provided childcare when the kids came along. They never hesitated to slip us a few bucks when we’d exhausted our limited resources. It was kind of like a loan they never expected us to pay back.

We don’t tend to notice our parents’ altruistic impulses during our formative years, despite the hefty costs involved in raising today’s children to adulthood ($245,000 per kid, according to a 2013 estimate). Maybe that’s because that quarter-million is dished out as part of a basic survival program — there’s nothing especially charitable about it. It’s more likely, though, that your folks hadn’t yet developed a full-blown capacity for giving.

A recent study out of the University of Oregon suggests that changes in the aging brain make us more altruistic in middle age and beyond than we were in our younger years. This has nothing to do with income — which makes sense when I think of both of our cash-strapped parents — and everything to do with what researchers call “neural rewards.”

The 80 study participants, 18 to 67 years old, took a battery of psychological tests as well as fMRI measurements to show how their brains responded to various opportunities to demonstrate charitable behavior. The results indicate that the altruistic impulse doesn’t tend to kick in until after the age of 45.

If that’s the case, MLW and I are relatively late bloomers on the charitable-impulse continuum. But we seem to be making up for lost time. Our daughter, for reasons that escape me, has taken up a Bohemian lifestyle that requires regular infusions of parental charity. We share our car with her these days. And our son was the recipient of a series of financial bailouts prior to joining the socialist utopia (free rent, healthcare, college, and cheap meals) that is the U.S. Marine Corps.

We do not have a way to reliably measure the neural rewards we’ve gained from all this ad hoc altruism — if we can actually call it by that name. It’s good to know we can help our kids out when they need it, but it’s kind of what we signed up for (though we didn’t read the fine print) when we decided to procreate. I like to think of it in more karmic terms, though. Maybe we’re just paying back the loans we took out a generation ago.

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