Two seconds.

After making an annual gift to my alma mater the other day, I wondered what my donation was worth as measured by how long it could sustain the university’s operations. I Googled the annual operating budget, divided by my gift, and realized that I had funded two seconds of operating costs. A little less, actually.

Two seconds!

I scoffed, at first, at my miniscule impact. Then I double-checked my math, convinced I had missed a zero and overstated my gift’s power, after I took a moment to appreciate the fact that my alma mater is big–thousands of students and faculty–and has an even bigger endowment at a little over $20 billion. But it would be the day’s biggest news in higher education if, say, the place shut down. Even for two seconds. Perhaps especially if it shut down for two seconds.

There’s a flaw in my thinking, of course: that endowment, along with tuition and other sources of revenue would cover my slack if I didn’t give.  Still, there was power in envisioning a consequence of not giving, and I gained a sense of satisfaction in knowing that thousands of other people felt the same way. If none of us gave, the place still wouldn’t shut down. But it wouldn’t be the same place, either.

Nor would I be the same person. For a long time, my wife and I had virtually no philanthropic interests. Then, one Christmas, we vowed that our gifts to each other would take the form of charitable donations to organizations that we thought the other would like. I made a gift to the Upper Valley Humane Society that would save a few dogs on behalf of my dog-loving wife, and she made a gift in my name to Heifer International to provide a few goats to impoverished communities. (We owned goats at the time, an impulse buy of mine. I later gave them away and gave my wife the gift of knowing that she wouldn’t come home to escaped goats chewing on our home’s siding.)

It was the best gift idea we’ve ever had. Our gifts awakened what had once been dormant interests. She smiled when we drove by the Humane Society, and I developed an appreciation for the true power of capacity-building gifts. Giving had always felt like something we should do, but we hadn’t anticipated that it would be good for us in completely selfish ways. That surprise awakened my curiosity, so I nerded out on philanthropy itself, and saved what I learned:

A 2008 Harvard Business School study found that giving money to someone else lifted participants’ happiness more than spending it on themselves (despite their prediction that spending it on themselves would make them happier.) A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health found that giving to charities activates regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection, and trust. Scientists also believe that altruistic behavior releases endorphins in the brain, producing a positive feeling known as the “helper’s high” that’s similar to the “runner’s high” in endurance athletes.

My favorite study, though, by James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, showed that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people.

I love this, perhaps because it’s not immediately measurable. It feels, to me, like the source of the kindness of strangers. And while I can’t be sure, I’m willing to bet that it was someone else’s kindness to me that inspired my gift of two seconds of operating costs in the first place.


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