Let's face it. Boredom is not fun. Too much of the same burns out your ability to enjoy. Newness, by contrast is invigorating. That's part of what makes shopping fun, at least for some people. Shopping for new love is especially exciting. So are doing new things, meeting new people, seeing new places and learning new ideas (like from PsychologyToday postings!). Why?
A PsychologyToday blog post by Alex Korb gave me an insight. Korb talks about serotonin, the neurotransmitter chemical known as the happiness drug. Whereas dopamine is associated with anxiety and with determination to accomplish objectives, and adrenaline with anger and fear fight or flight reactions, serotonin is the good-guy neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being. Loretta Breuning, another PT blogger, refers to it as one of the "happy chemicals."
Insufficient serotonin levels are associated with depressive states. That's why some of the anti-depressant medications aim to keep serotonin longer in the body. These medications aim to help the body's reservoir of serotonin fill up. With higher serotonin levels, depressed people seem to feel less down. In my office suite, energy therapist Dale Petterson accomplishes the same objective with muscle kinesiology, a magboy magnet, and intention. Depressed people, by his measuring system, score their serotonin levels as low as 2-3 on a scale to 10. Raising their serotin to 7-10 immediately upgrades their mood.
Kolb points out that many activities in normal life trigger increases in serotonin. He focuses on four: sunshine, exercise, massage and thinking about happy experiences.
In addition to newness, I would add several others, for instance, winning. Whereas depression is associated with low serotonin levels triggered, often, by a sense of loss, winning invites a serotonin boost. Winning is a big piece of what makes sports fun to do, and even to watch. When my city's football team, the Bronco's, just won a major game, citizens all over the city felt uplifted. Serotonin surges kicked in for all of us.
My hunch is that giving to others, good music, beauty in any form, and experiencing nature in all it's variety also impact serotonin levels. You can tell because they make you feel good.
Shopping for gifts interestingly may boost serotonin in multiple ways. First, it involves acquisition of something new. Gift-giving then augments this pleasure with the added bonus of giving something to someone. Giving tends also to boost serotonin. Gift-giving brings us the delight we feel in seeing that we have given someone else delight.
Gratitude is another serotonin booster, so the receiver, feeling grateful for your gift, gets to enjoy the lovely feelings of a serotonin surge. No wonder birthdays and the holiday season are so full of good cheer!
No wonder many people like to go shopping when they are feeling bored or down.
There can be of course too much of a good thing. Using shopping, for new things or for new relationships, as an anti-depressant can lead to shopaholic patterns. On the flip side of depression, people in the manic phase of bipolar illness are at risk for going on break-the-bank major shopping sprees and hunts for new romantic partners.
Serotonin's impact may be circular. The more we acquire something new, the more we feel joyful. At the same time, feeling joyful may trigger an impulse to do more of what feels good, creating a vicious cycle of feeling good, shopping, feeling good at even higher levels of intensity, more shopping, etc. Beware of shopping, including shopping for new love, addictions!
What other kinds of activities besides shopping give a boost of positive energy because of the element of newness?
Try getting to know a new person. Read a new book. See a new movie. Travel to a new place, even a place you've not been to recently in your own town. Do a new activity, like a new sport, volunteer work, or a political participation. Start a new business project.
On a grey day when the sun emerges through the clouds pay attention and you could experience a triple burst of serotonin: the new lighting, plus sunshine, plus beauty.
I recently was hiking in the mountains. As I became increasingly tired, I began to feel bored with the repetitive motion of just putting one foot ahead of the other, so I paused for a bit. A few deep breaths helped the fatigue. Even more potent though were the new sights I saw now that I had paused and could look around me. The long view of the valley below startled me. "New" view number one. Then as I looked next to me, I saw sunlit leaves. I saw a small multi-colored beetle crawling purposely along the ground. I saw softgreen moss and white marbled stones. All these new sights felt invigorating. My boredom had lifted, replaced by replenished serotonin and well-being.
Back to shopping, the serotonin burst from newness is, alas, only one of the multiple phenomena that may occur for people when they shop.
Shopping can be an emotionally complex activity. Anxiety about how you will pay the credit card bill at the end of a month is likely to kick in alongside the positive happy chemicals. Anxiety about decisions also can spoil the fun.
However, lest we end on a discouraging note, here's one last serotonin-boosting thought on the activity of shopping.
Every time you buy something, say a gift for a young child, you are giving the gift of employment to many, many people.
Your money goes to the factory workers who made the toy, to the toy company's marketing and management employees, to those who work for the distributor who arranged for the toy to be sold in stores, not to mention to the sales staff and management of the store where you made the purchase, the restaurant workers and owner where you ate lunch between stores, and the taxi driver who brought you home when you were carrying too many bags to take the bus.
So shoppers, pat yourselves on your collective backs for using an antidote to boredom and solution to feeling good that is helping to save America's economy! How's that for a feel-good serotonin surge!
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.