Let's face it. Boredom is not fun. Too much of the same burns out your ability to enjoy, putting you into a bad mood.
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?
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 feel less down.
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 augmenting this list with newness, I would add several other activities, for instance, winning. Whereas the low serotonin levels of depression can be triggered by a loss, winning invites a serotonin boost. Winning consequently factors large in what makes sports fun to do, and even to watch. When my city's football team, the Bronco's, win a major game, citizens all over the city feel uplifted. Serotonin surges kick in for all the fans.
Giving to others, good music, beauty in any form, and experiencing natural environments also impact serotonin levels. They too make you feel good.
Shopping, and especially for gifts, may boost serotonin in multiple ways.
First, shopping involves hunting for, discovery, and then 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 expensive 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. The better they feel, the more they want to do more of activities that induce the serotonin rush.
In this regard, 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.
So beware of excessive shopping, including compulsive shopping for new love. Too much of a good thing can suggest that you are on the road to an addiction!
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. You may experience a triple burst of serotonin from 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 and beautiful 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—for yourself or as a present for a friend or family member—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, and 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 ye happy shoppers, you can pat yourselves on your collective backs. You are engaging in 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, is a Denver clinical psychologist. A graduate of Harvard with a PhD from NYU, Dr. Heitler has authored multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two for couples.
Most recently, Dr. Heitler has published Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, a book which offers a wide basket of feel-better techniques. The intervention strategies in the book and also on its free website are designed both for self-help and for therapists who want to expand their treatment repertoire.