The whole experience is one that we revel in; trying on those cute outfits and interacting with the salespeople. Picking up little doodads and smelling new fragrances. And then finally, taking our hard-earned dollars and making that glorious purchase. We feel so proud of ourselves. Something new and shiny to call our own. And in that moment, everything feels right with the world. There’s no doubt about it, retail therapy is a very real and very powerful thing. But why does shopping make us feel so good? That warm and fuzzy feeling we have inside after swiping our credit cards has some interesting scientific reasons behind it.
When we shop, we activate specific regions of our brains. And not just the parts that say “Oh my, that bag is SO me!” The mesial prefrontal cortex is stimulated while we consider the price of an item against what we feel its value is. This part of the brain deals with problem-solving on a high level. The insula, which associates with discomfort and pain is activated when an item is priced too high… yeah, $50 for that Tshirt, ouch. The nucleus accumbens is closely associated with the reward pathway of the brain and is activated during consideration of an item that we desire. This is the part we most love being stimulated.
While activating different parts of the brain is pretty cool, there is also a chemical change that occurs that can get us completely hooked on the whole shopping experience. Most of us have probably heard of dopamine before. This powerful neurotransmitter goes crazy when we are shopping. Dopamine is released when there is the anticipation of a reward. It’s no wonder then that this powerful neurotransmitter goes crazy when we are shopping. This can be kicked up even further when an item that we desire is on sale. Well, obviously, who doesn’t love a good sale?
It was previously thought that shopping could become a compulsive activity. New research has taught us differently. Some people can build up a tolerance to the level of dopamine released from each purchase. This means that they will need to buy more and more to feel the same effect as before to get that shopping “euphoria.” In extreme cases, it is this intense feeling of immediate gratification from a spike in dopamine that can make shopping become an obsessive activity. It is the same spike in dopamine that is received from activity on the internet, sugar intake, and exercising… talk about some strong stuff.
Obviously, not every shopper is a dopamine fanatic looking for more and more spikes. The majority of us enjoy treating ourselves every so often and savor the warm rush that a much-anticipated purchase will provide. After a stressful week, nothing can compare to the feeling of finding the perfect dress with matching shoes and a belt on sale. The negative aspects of the week just melt away.
In reality though, if someone feels that they could possibly have a shopping obsession, there is no shame in seeking help. We would highly recommend seeing someone about this problem before becoming bankrupt, getting into major debt, or letting personal relationships deteriorate. If you don’t have a problem, what are you waiting for? There is always a sale on somewhere.