Why Does Shopping Feel Good?

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Money is a feminist issue — and yet, women are still reluctant to talk about it. According to a recent Bustle survey of more than 1,000 millennial women, more than 50 percent of people said they never discuss personal finances with friends, even though 28 percent reported feeling stressed out about money every single day. That’s why Bustle launched Grown-A$$ Finances, a series that gets real about what millennial women are doing with their money, and why — because managing your money should feel empowering, not intimidating.

The idea of "retail therapy" is pretty embedded into the fabric of our society — even if we don't engage in it ourselves, most of us are quite familiar with the idea of hitting the stores or online shops to blow off steam after a hard day. But why do we find the act of purchasing something — particularly something unnecessary — to be so pleasurable?After all, we're sacrificing some of our limited financial resources for a thing we don't actually need — shouldn't that feel bad?

As any seasoned shopper can tell you, it's not just the act of accumulating things that is pleasurable. Much of the appeal is in the process — the picking up and putting down of products, the wandering through places you couldn't possibly afford, the actual exchanges at the check-out, the social element, and other aspects of the shopping experience.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why we shop the way we do. It turns out that there are many factors — from the inner workings of contemporary culture to how our own brains function —  that make shopping feel fun. Will this info help you curb your needless spending? Perhaps. But if nothing else, it will definitely make you experience your next trip to the grocery store on a whole other level.

Felix Vallotton

The idea of shopping as entertainment or a hobby is a relatively new one — and a lot of the way in which we think about buying products as a pleasurable experience is rooted in the history of retail. For much of human history, buying was decentralized (done by traveling merchants or in many separate shops and markets), and buying beyond necessity wasn't available to everybody, because luxuries were intensely expensive. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and in the process converted shopping from a necessity to a social occasion and a pastime.

The way people shop changed with the introduction of two new things: cheaper consumer goods that could be afforded by many, and centralized, beautiful department stores and shopping malls that were destinations as much as practical places (the first department store opened in England in 1796, but we have records of clusters of shops and kiosks dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I). Malls were new spaces for new activities with new products, and the big targets were women. And they became, historians say, a way for women to wander, socialize, experience new things without necessarily being chaperoned, and generally act as free agents in the service of pleasure.

That element still factors in the way we regard shopping today, where entertainment is a large part of the experience. Places that don't serve all our senses or keep us intrigued aren't seen as valuable or pleasurable shopping arenas.  

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Sure, there are cultural elements that make shopping an entertaining pastime, but neurology may be the real reason that we find it so engaging. And scientists have done some intriguing work regarding precisely what it is about shopping that sets off certain mechanisms in the brain concerned with happiness and contentment.

Neurologically, shopping exists on a spectrum with other experiences and products, from chocolate to sex, that activate the brain's substantial reward pathways, prompting activity that makes us experience pleasure. The neurologist David Linden, in his 2011 book The Compass Of Pleasure, explains that the experience of shopping triggers dopamine circuitry in the brain's mesolimbic pathway, which is a key part of how we experience entertainment and happiness. The part of the brain concerned is the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, and more intimate studies from Stanford reveal a particularly intriguing trade-off within it that highlights how the pleasure principle of shopping works.

Technically, shopping should be painful; we're parting with resources (our money), after all. The Stanford study found that when people were contemplating whether or not they wanted a product (experiencing desire for it), blood flow in a part of the medial forebrain called the nucleus accumbens increased; but when they contemplated the price, another part of the brain related to decision-making came into play. The pleasure of buying, in other words, is a mediation between the rational and pleasure-seeking parts of the brain. Researchers also found that when people chose not to buy, they saw greater activity in the insula, which deals with feelings of loss.

It's not just all about reacting to the shopping experience, though. Experiments with the brain's dopamine releases in pleasurable situations have found that anticipation also kicks them off; we experience pleasure, in other words, when we're looking forward to a fun event as well as during and after it. A trip to the mall is enjoyable in the abstract, in our diaries for the weekend, and also while we're in the shops themselves.

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But in order to really understand why shopping gives us pleasure, we need to think about the ways in which we shop. For instance, various studies have shown that people often shop after a setback, in order to mentally "repair" their damaged experience with something more pleasurable (though it may create a backlash, as having a product that reminds you of your failure may not please you very much in the end).

There's also evidence that consumers shop before a potentially damaging situation to prepare themselves for the ensuing shock to their ego, but that they're very selective about how and what they buy — think of it as shopping as protection.

We also learn and accumulate experiences about shopping as pleasurable that shape our future pleasure-shopping decisions. Researchers have noted, for instance, that impulse buyers rarely, if ever, buy things from categories they haven't previously bought; they rely instead on past memories of pleasure from soaps or DVDs or shoes rather than branching out and experimenting. (This is why you will probably not impulse buy a speedboat if you don't already have one). Shopping as pleasure therefore isn't a static thing; it refines and shifts as our own tastes and ideas change.

And then there's another kind of shopping behavior that sheds light on shopping's pleasure potential. The "sports shopper," as researchers called it in a study in 2015, is a kind of shopper who pursues the high of "winning" through shopping as a medium. These are the people who are bargain champions, recall every deal in great detail, and gain their greatest pleasure from "battling" stores and recounting their victories to others. Shopping, in that sense, is a competitive activity that can sate our desire to feel superior.

Advertisers are more than aware about how the pleasure we derive from shopping governs our buying. A lot of work over the centuries has been put into inspiring the brain's pleasure centers and kicking off memories or sensations that might induce purchasing; The Economist, in 2008, noted that a company had the scent of coconut put into its travel agencies, because many suntan oils contain the smell and it reminds people of vacations. Memory, action, competition, freedom, health: the aspects in which shopping gives us pleasure are pretty myriad, even if we buy nothing more expensive than a lip balm.

Check out the “Grown-A$$ Finances” stream in the Bustle App for more tips and tricks on how to save and spend your money.