For a nation whose economy rests on consumption, retail therapy—the notion that shopping lifts spirits—offers the ultimate double ticket: sales, combined with brief relief to the daily stressors. But, as the shopping season is upon us, will the plentiful purchasing make our time merry and bright or end up summoning our inner depressed scrooge?
It’s no surprise that cruising the mall can temporarily boost our mood. Brain researchers have shown that shopping excites the brain’s reward center, resulting in a release of feel-good chemicals. One of these chemicals, dopamine, is involved in emotional responses, pleasure, and pain. It is also one of the neurotransmitters involved in drug addiction and compulsive behavior. As we dig through the holiday bargain bins and hunt down the perfect tea towel for mom, a surge of dopamine can make us feel giddy, even high. And it’s not even the material good that necessarily brings the joy—it’s often simply the anticipation of the find.
The rush makes us feel good and it also may explain why, when people are down in the dumps, they’re willing to spend more on themselves. A study published in the June 2008 issue of Psychological Science looked at 33 volunteers and found that sadness can lead to more self-centered thinking, and this can lead to a willingness to spend more money on themselves.
The authors of the study concluded that even a temporary sadness can result in buying expensive items as a way to try to boost self-esteem. Shopping can also be used as a distraction, a way of taking people’s minds off what’s troubling them. As America’s number-one pastime, shopping, like excess drinking or eating, is a mode of self-medication.
Shopping may temporarily ease our burdens, but it can also lead to some serious missteps. Impulse buying or purchasing items that we don’t really want or need are some of the outcomes. And when the dopamine has worn off, the high and feelings associated with it are gone.
For the casual weekend mall-goer, the dopamine rush may be worth it. But for those who have oniomania—the compulsive or obsessive desire to shop—the addiction is much more like compulsive eating, drug abuse, or alcoholism. The shopping can be life consuming and the results—debt, shame, guilt, or bankruptcy—detrimental.
’Tis the Season for Sales
December may be the most trying month for those looking to avoid reckless spending. According to an article on compulsive shopping by Ruth Engs, a professor at Indiana University, shopping can act as a balm for those suffering from depression, anxiety, and loneliness during the holidays and can trigger shopping binges among people who aren’t normally compulsive shoppers.
Certainly the marketing-heavy, frenzied, holiday culture doesn’t make it easy to remain level-headed. So while the dopamine is cursing through our eggnog-addled minds, Eng’s paper suggests a few things to help keep purchasing in check:
* Use debit cards and cash, rather than relying on credit cards
* Think like Santa: make a list, check it twice, and don’t deviate from it
* Be cautious when visiting new places or stores as people tend to make more extraneous purchases in a new place
* When the urge to shop hits, take a walk (preferably not in the mall) or exercise
And remember that no matter how cute that baby hedgehog calendar is or how lovely that crystal-encrusted wreath broach may seem, you just might regret it come January 1.