’Tis the season of sales and shopping — but are you confident you’ll be able to stop when you have enough?
Between the decorations, feasts and gift-giving, the winter holidays give us plenty of reasons to spend money, which human brains find rewarding. As good as the initial feeling is, however, holiday spending habits may have some negative consequences.
“We can rationalize it at this point in the season, due to the fact that it is Thanksgiving, there are the sales coming up and I think many people get carried away,” said Dr. Ashish Bhatt, medical content director for Addiction Center. “But if this continues on and again ultimately causes problems in your life financially or relationship wise, then it really mimics an addiction.”
Shopping may not be a diagnosable addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, that health professionals use to diagnose patients, but it is a behavior that can follow an addictive cycle, he added.
Sometimes, people just spend more money than they should. Other times, they may start to feel anxiety creeping up about all the things they should buy, and it feels great when they get them, but the high goes away and they need to do it again, Bhatt said.
“That’s when you probably are looking at a pattern of negative shopping behavior,” he said. And sometimes, even after the holidays are over, it’s hard to break that cycle once it has started.
Whether it’s addictive or just a feeling of not being totally in control of spending, the holidays are a good time to look at your relationship with shopping.
Why our brains like shopping
It’s no surprise that shopping feels good — it feeds our brains’ rewards systems.
“The reward system is a system that was built on earlier species than us, way back millions of years, to teach us what we needed to survive,” said Dr. Ann-Christine Duhaime, distinguished professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “If something is fun … that’s generally a pretty good indication that it’s the reward system in action.”
Help with addiction
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Purchasing things gives the brain a hit of the chemical dopamine, Bhatt said. Dopamine is often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.
On top of that, many people are paid lots of money to make shopping feel even more rewarding, Duhaime said.
“Retailers know very well how to make it fun for you and how to appeal to multiple things that humans find rewarding,” she said.
That could mean tying gift-giving to connection with commercials about how loved your friends and family will feel if you buy a certain gift or emphasizing competition by offering limited-time deals you need to race to get, Duhaime added.
It was beneficial for our ancestors’ survival to get what was needed with as little sacrifice as possible as well as to connect and fit in with others in their community, so those drives to shop, give gifts and find deals are strong, she said.
The sacrifices needed to buy holiday gifts and goods drastically decrease when you go online, Duhaime said.
Instead of getting in your car, driving a distance, finding what you want in a store, waiting in a checkout line and handing over your cash or card, in the age of online shopping, you can press a couple of buttons from your couch, she added.
“Basically, anything you could ever want to buy, dream of buying or think of buying is at our fingertips,” said Alexandra Cromer, a licensed professional counselor based in Richmond, Virginia.
And with features to save your credit card information on websites, there can be mere seconds between the moment you’re thinking about something you want to buy and having already paid for it, Duhaime said.
The less time it takes and the fewer barriers between you and a purchase, the less time there is to think about whether you really want or need it, she said.
Less shopping, more holiday cheer
As much as we want to give our families the best holidays ever every year, more shopping doesn’t always bring us closer to that goal, Duhaime said.
“The rewards of shopping are extremely short-term. And after you shop and after the presents have all been opened, there’s oftentimes a letdown. And then you start to have the guilt of the money that you overspent,” she said.
When you picture a perfect Christmas of Hanukkah for your kids, you may think of new decorations and presents — even bigger and better than last year’s — but our brains are also designed to find reward in familiarity, Duhaime said.
“What kids actually want is, they want it to be the same every year,” she said. “There is some connection to the past, to tradition, to the deeper meaning of a holiday, to just being together that people find extremely rewarding, and especially in times of rapid change like is happening now in the world, where science and technology are just changing so fast.”
Two of the biggest factors tied to long-term happiness and life satisfaction are relationships and a sense of purpose. Instead of searching for the holiday spirit by purchasing more things, Duhaime recommended focusing on gifts and activities that can bring people more connection and a sense of purpose.
Doing so may be tied to a meaningful memory, doing an activity together or finding something to help your child build a skill or passion.
How to cut down
A more meaningful, less shopping-frenzied holiday sounds nice, but it isn’t always so easy to find.
Start by recognizing that a lot of the seasonal pressure you feel comes from people trying to make money by selling you things — not necessary measures for a better holiday, Duhaime said.
Next, Bhatt recommended identifying your triggers. These could mean avoiding malls or big stores, limiting credit cards or talking with your loved ones about being mindful of shopping, he said.
Then, the best way to change a behavior is not to tell yourself to stop, but to replace it with something better, Duhaime said.
Instead of shopping, maybe go through your closet and have a swap with friends, she suggested. Or draw names so family members can focus on getting a great gift for one person rather than everyone.
And if you find yourself with similar habits after the holidays, Cromer recommended a detox in the beginning of the year. It could be a no-spend month in January or a softer break from shopping in which you focus on saving money for a bigger goal, she added.
But addiction and addictive behaviors are driven by many factors — including genetics, environment and experiences — so it is possible that trauma or another mental health issue may contribute to the ways in which you shop, Bhatt said.
“Cognitive behavioral therapies are some of the best ways to actually address this,” he said. “It’s super important that somebody who’s struggling with that get the help that they deserve.”