As a born and bred Brit, I’ve noticed something unusual happening on my little island over the past few years. Every time November rolls around, more signs for Black Friday pop up. We don’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, and yet we've decided to participate in the overwhelming discounts, deals, and decadence.
Our holiday shopping was going just fine before Black Friday came along, so why do so many people seem suddenly keen to get caught up in the consumer craziness? Of course saving money has something to do with it, but I have a theory that there's more to it. As I've become more and more interested in the question of why we shop, I've come across articles from nearly 30 years ago—pre-internet shopping, pre-smartphones, pre-Amazon Prime memberships—that wouldn’t seem out of place if they were published today. Consider this quote from a 1991 New York Times piece: "The trip to the store has become a ritual assurance of love and self-worth, offering an escape from loneliness, despair and anxiety."
It turns out the urge to shop—and the potentially negative environmental and financial consequences that come with it—is not new at all.
The history of shopping.
Since its humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, shopping as we know it has provided a means of escape, entertainment, and social bonding. Escapism provided a means of relief and respite for those who were socially oppressed, oftentimes women.
Women used to be mostly excluded from any meaningful economic activity or decision making, but the economic boom that followed the First World War suddenly pushed them to the front of the shopping experience. Previously uninviting and unattractive spaces for buying dry goods began to transform into the world’s first department stores; cultural icons that were glamorous, exciting, and enticing. Inside, women were not just allowed, but encouraged, to make choices for themselves.
Though they initially appealed to a haughty crowd, department stores grew less exclusive over the years, and middle-class women began joining the fun. Come the 21st century, a growing group of shoppers across the Western world were being manipulated by (mainly male) advertisers and retailers to buy more, more, more. This suspension of reality that followed wasn’t just about feeling good for a few hours. It was about imagining a new life for yourself, filled with the items of your choosing.
In these beginnings, we can start to understand why many of us now have an impulsive desire to shop.
Why we actually shop.
It’s important to add a disclaimer here: Not all shopping is bad, of course. There’s nothing wrong with buying things that we like now and again, and we all need clothes and food in order to stay alive. But shopping becomes dicey when we're buying things that add little to no value to our lives—something that most of us do on a regular basis. Here are some players I see fueling this mindless shopping:
This is the biggie. In a world swirling with possibilities, information, and instability, shopping can help us feel like we still have some control over our lives. Making the choice to buy or not buy something helps give us a momentary sense of control. This eventually fades, but then we just shop again. While shopping may give us temporary respite, it doesn’t solve the root of the problem.
A scarcity narrative:
Our built-in survival instincts can often feed a scarcity mindset. Ingrained narratives tell us that what we have isn’t enough to survive, so we must grab hold of anything we can. We trick ourselves into thinking that if we don’t buy something right now, we can never ever have it—at least not at such a good price. Sound familiar?
Humans are competitive by nature, and we love the feeling of winning. This urge to win at shopping can suck us into sales and discounts. This can lead us to buy things we never wanted, needed, or planned to have. But hey, it was a great bargain!
Sometimes we shop because we literally have nothing better to do. Again, this is short-term thinking. We use the fleeting thrill of shopping as an entertainment Band-Aid of sorts, putting off finding activities that will fulfill us in the long term.
Boredom isn’t the only feeling that can prompt us to shop; pretty much any emotion can be the culprit. Whether we’re angry or upset, shopping always seems like a good idea. Studies suggest that shopping causes dopamine to surge in the brain, creating a similar sensation to a drug high. In short, buying things is a tangible way to attempt to alleviate or distract ourselves from negative emotions.
What can we do to resist the urge to mindlessly shop?
The good news is that none of these factors actually have the ability to control us. There are ways we can deal with them if we’re willing to put in a little work. Here are my top three:
When we feel out of control, there are plenty of ways to take back charge of our lives. If you need a tactile experience, try an activity like rearranging a bookshelf, reorganizing your closet, or making something. You can also try things like cooking a new recipe, meditating, or doing some exercise to help you feel like you’re in control of your mental and physical health. I find that swimming works really well for me. Not only is it a way of being active, but it physically removes me from any material distractions. After all, I can’t take them into the water with me!
Try and realign your perspective.
Make a list of everything you’re grateful for and keep it on you. Whenever you feel the urge to shop for something you don't have, look at the list of everything you do have. You'll probably notice that a lot of what you wrote down isn't material. So, instead of buying something, think about what you can do to engage with the things that really make you feel fulfilled. Seek out these meaningful interactions.
There are countless studies that show that being generous with our time and resources works wonders, not just for those we serve but for ourselves. Volunteering can help take our mind off negative thought patterns that might cause us to shop, as well as cause higher self-esteem, foster a sense of purpose, and help put things in perspective.
When we take steps to live a more holistic, expanded lifestyle, shopping often fades into the background. It’s not about never purchasing anything again but instead establishing a healthy relationship with shopping so we can buy things we really need, when we need them. By finding healthier ways to deal with some of the impulses that may lead us to compulsively shop, we can lead lives that are ultimately more full of contentment, gratitude, and understanding.
Snag some more tips for mindful shopping here.