Retail therapy? Be careful what you wish for.

I am not a fan of shopping. I feel guilty even as I write this, as if I’ve just confessed to not liking babies, kittens, or naps on Sunday afternoons. I’m not sure exactly what it is that upsets me, but I can only describe it as sensory overload – too much visual, auditory and tactile input for my sense organs to process at one time.  Venturing into the shops at this time of year can be daunting to say the least.

It was something of a fluke therefore, or perhaps serendipity, that I came across a book today about the psychology of consumer behavior. It was called Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, by James Roberts, a professor of marketing. The theme of the book is that the more we shop, the more unhappy we become. In a neat illustration of this, the author has a simple graph showing that between 1970 and the present day, America’s gross domestic product skyrocketed and personal spending increased to record levels, yet individual levels of self-reported happiness flatlined over the same period. Americans are apparently no happier today than in 1970 despite the accumulation of material possessions, or maybe because of it. The author notes that shopping, like drinking alcohol and compulsive eating, can be addictive because the brain releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, inducing sensations of pleasure. It’s not called “retail therapy” for nothing; as far as the brain is concerned, shopping is a form of self-medication. Unfortunately, the effects are short-lived and shoppers, like alcoholics and compulsive eaters, go back again and again for another “dose”.  It is not uncommon for people to recover from an eating disorder, only to develop an addiction to shopping.

Why are we in the western world so slow to see these connections?  In Bhutan, a small, landlocked country near the Himalayas, citizens’ quality of life is not measured by wealth (or gross domestic product) but by “Gross National Happiness,” an official indicator of  psychological and social well-being unrelated to economic prosperity.  I was pleased to read that in July 2011, 68 countries, including western nations such as Canada, the UK and Australia, co-sponsored a United Nations resolution to encourage the adoption of gross national happiness indicators.  Notably absent from the United Nations resolution:  the USA.

The moral to the story?  You’ll find plenty of shiny objects at the shopping mall.  But happiness?  Not so much.

Oh, and by the way, I bought James Roberts’ book. I can be a consumer when I need to be.