I was at a crossroads in my train-wreck of a relationship with my first boyfriend. The initial romance and excitement had worn off, but it wasn’t naturally being replaced by friendship, affection, and common values. The novelty of the relationship was slipping away, and I couldn’t figure out why we didn’t have anything to talk about anymore.
In spite of the increasing distance between us, it was right at this point that we went on an inexplicably magical date, the memory of which we both held on to, trying to use it to prove that we were meant for each other. It wasn’t an unusual date. We’d wandered aimlessly around the mall for an hour or so. He talked me into trying on a ridiculously expensive leather jacket, and on a whim, I decided to buy it. Suddenly, I was glowing with happiness again. I felt so connected to him. I took the feeling as proof that we were meant to be.
Only recently, I figured out what that feeling really was. It wasn’t destiny, it was dopamine.
The shopping buzz
The real reason I felt high as a kite is because shopping, among other things, can trigger a beautiful, sparkling dopamine cascade in your brain, and I had prompted an unusually high spike by making an especially novel purchase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate our feelings of pain, pleasure, and satisfaction. Your brain uses it to reward and reinforce behavior that it perceives as good for you.
Your brain isn’t trying to hurt you. Our brains are wired for survival, so no wonder it feels, on some level, that acquiring new possessions is good for us—the more exciting, the better. Evolution hasn’t prepared us for a world where cheap and novel choices are everywhere, and sales and marketing tactics specifically play to this weakness of ours. For women, this can be especially strong because, evolutionarily, we have been conditioned to associate security with a healthy stock of material possessions.
Are you familiar with that feeling, that little buzz of satisfaction and excitement when you’ve bought something new? On some level, I think we all go looking for that feeling. Last week, a five-dollar stick of gold eyeliner turned my whole day around. Between my allergies and how often I tear up, I know perfectly well that it's not something I’ll use very often. But it had been a horrible day, and I knew that buying something—anything—was going to lift the stress, at least for a moment. And it worked because that’s literally what dopamine does.
Awareness is key
Dopamine may be a powerful thing, but we’re not helpless here. Just the simple knowledge of what’s going on has made a huge difference in my spending habits. Instead of feeling drawn to those earrings like I absolutely need them, I’m better able to realize that what I’m really searching for is that great sensation of excitement and satisfaction. I’m better able to remember that on an especially bad day, I might think I want that new book, but what I’m really chasing is a tried-and-true way to cheer myself up.
When we know what’s going on, we can make a more intentional choice. Sometimes I know perfectly well I’m just chasing that good feeling, and I make the purchase anyway. Some days you just need a lift, and if a nice bar of chocolate or a thrift-store find is going to help, that’s not necessarily unreasonable.
If I know I shouldn’t give in to the temptation to buy a certain item, though, I can use this knowledge to keep a clear mind and look at the situation more objectively.
It’s a good opportunity to ask why I want that dopamine feeling so badly. Behind the scenes, there’s usually stress, which is actually good news. I can look at my stress and try to treat it at the source, instead of sticking a bandaid on the symptoms. Maybe I’m just overtired, and I need a nap, not a scented candle. Maybe my husband and I haven’t been communicating, and I don’t need new sandals so much as I need to sit down with him and talk.
Or, if it’s novelty and excitement that you’re after, there are other ways to get that without spending money. In high school, I’d ask my friend to cut my hair or borrow a sweater of hers. These days, my favorite trick is to go to my library’s web page and request a book. (Our brains, bless them, seem to think borrowing and buying are the same thing.) Or I’ll take a drive somewhere I’ve never been, or re-arrange the furniture on my porch, or do something new with my hair or makeup. All of these activities can provide a sense of “acquiring” or novelty similar enough to shopping to help me keep my credit card safe in my purse.
Sometimes we really need to restock our wardrobe, but if you’re just seeking the thrill of a purchase for an emotional boost, being aware of the science of impulse spending can help you master your mind and wallet.
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