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Society’s Slippery Slope

Straight up, we’ve all enjoyed one of those impulsive trips to the mall, during which we enjoy an impulsive ice cream, followed by an impulsive safari into one or more of our favorite-but-often-off-limits retail outlets only to emerge an hour later with a polysomething bag full of goodies and an interior bliss which can only be described as, well, being a man I’ll say post-coital.

This, my friends, is what we’ve come to term as “shop therapy.”

The phrase isn’t new however. In fact, its antecedent “Retail Therapy” can be traced all the way back to a 1986 Chicago Tribune article describing how we’ve become a nation that “nurses its psychic ills through retail therapy.” Wow. Is that what we’re doing, nursing our ills?

When you look up the definition of therapy, you’ll get something like this: The treatment of a disease or disorder by a remedial, rehabilitative or restorative process. And for most of us, that’s what we think we’re doing. “I’m treating my boredom! I’m treating my anxiety! I’m treating my anger at my spouse-- which is vital for my sanity!”

But, are we really treating it? Quite honestly, no. But before we haul off and admit ourselves into Shopaholics Anonymous, let’s take a look at what actually happens when we go shopping.

When we enter a store we like, two things happen. The first thing that occurs is a sudden awareness of lack. This slightly desperate feeling occurs without warning and arises naturally from our tastes and desires. The Chloe blouse, the MetroPark tee-shirt, the Steve Madden boots…these things arouse a limbic response in our brains that suddenly says, I need that.

To me this is remarkable, as this is one of the few instances in life on earth where you don’t know that you need something until it shows up. It’s like falling in love. In fact, the part of the brain that registers the pleasurable anticipation of a kiss (or even a pizza) is the very same part that is awakened during this first encounter with those Madden boots.

Healthy, right? Well, maybe. Let’s read on…

The second thing that happens is the fulfillment of that want, that is, we purchase the item. This act of purchasing quenches the anticipation and the sense of lack, but interestingly, it doesn’t rouse the same pleasure receptors in the brain as eating the pizza or kissing your lover. So, what’s going on here?

It means that buying the item you suddenly crave is not an act of pleasure as our brains typically experience pleasure, but something else entirely. This other thing, according to neurologists, more closely resembles “vice” or a cycle which includes the sudden sense of need and the false sense of power we momentarily have over that need.

Vices are in fact, distractions. They afford us the illusion of control of a very tiny universe over which we are the god… and as long as one of the consistent needs in our lives is something like nicotine, or food, or alcohol or sex, we have something over which we can repeatedly gain control, or at least momentarily… until the cycle repeats.

Now, I’m not here to say that all pleasure shopping is vice and is just a distraction from your real daily crises. In fact, I daresay that distractions are sometimes healthy. I mean, isn’t that why we invented such things as vacation and chocolate?

In my next article, we’ll look at ways which you can determine if you’re shopping habits are unhealthy, or merely an occasional and pleasant reprieve from life’s demands.

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