The case for randomly gifting your friends money on Venmo


Mononucleosis—a virus best known for being contracted during high school make-outs—has turned me into a monster. When I’m not stressing about the work I’m missing, or thinking about how everyone should feel bad for me, I’m passed out in bed. I suppose hard times have a way of making us (or at least me) self-absorbed.

Today, however, I got a surprise jolt back to reality—via Venmo.

Usually, Venmo notifications make me anxious (how can it already be time for next month’s rent?) or annoyed (you’re really going to charge me an extra $1.70 because my drink was “more expensive”?) The money-sending service has duly earned a reputation for turning us into petty jerks. Long gone are the days of “I’ve got dinner, you get the cab.”

But today my friend reversed this reputation, sending me a Venmo gift:

Screenshot of my Venmo notification: $5 "thinking of u, buy yourself a coffee <3"
Screenshot of my Venmo notification. (Leah Fessler)

When a friend is having a bad day, or you just miss them, sending cash for coffee (or shot of tequila) won’t solve all their problems. But random Venmo gifts are an easy way to to put oomph behind your empathy, and help your friends be grateful for the good things in their lives, like you!

Besides, studies show that kindness breeds more kindness, which means your Venmo gift may have a chain effect. Kristina’s Venmo shook me out of my selfish stewing, prompting me to Venmo-gift my roommate for her ongoing support:

My Venmo gift.
My Venmo gift. (Leah Fessler)

Venmo gifts are also surprising, which is physiologically rewarding in and of itself. Countless studies have linked surprise with the release of dopamine, which triggers pleasure and excitement; and noradrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter responsible for vigilant concentration.

“Surprise hijacks all of our mental processes and pulls our focus into one thing,” Tania Luna, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, said during a TEDx talk. This singular focus can provide reprieve when we’re anxious and overwhelmed.

What’s more, for happiness to take hold, it doesn’t particularly matter what the surprise is: In one Emory University study (pdf), MRI scans showed that participants who received a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths at unpredictable, rather than predictable intervals exhibited more activity in the reward center of their brain. So, even if you Venmo-gift $1 for toilet paper, you’ll still probably get a smile.

We all have different love languages, and acts of kindness mean more to some people than others. Bringing your friend a treat IRL, if you have the time and ability, of course adds an extra layer of joy. But by sending a quick Venmo gift, you can still remind your friend that they deserve to treat themselves kindly. That’s a reality we all too often forget.

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