When Wazhma Samizay and her friends have a bad day, they go shopping, a ritual dubbed retail therapy.
When you are shopping to buy a gift or get something for yourself, either way it's kind of a treat, says Samizay, who three years ago opened a Seattle boutique named Retail Therapy. The concept of the store was about finding things that made people feel good.
Science is now discovering what Samizay and many consumers have known all along Shopping makes you feel good. A growing body of brain research shows how shopping activates key areas of the brain, boosting our mood and making us feel better - at least for a little while. Peering into a decorated holiday window or finding a hard-to-find toy appears to tap into the brain's reward center, triggering the release of brain chemicals that give you a shopping high. Understanding the way your brain responds to shopping can help you make sense of the highs and lows of holiday shopping, avoid buyer's remorse and lower your risk for overspending.
Much of the joy of holiday shopping can be traced to the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine plays a crucial role in our mental and physical health. The brains of people with Parkinson's disease, for instance, contain almost no dopamine. Dopamine also plays a role in drug use and other addictive behaviors. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and it's released when we experience something new, exciting or challenging. And for many people, shopping is all those things.
You're seeing things you haven't seen; you're trying on clothes you haven't tried on before, says Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist and author of Satisfaction The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.
University of Kentucky researchers in 1995 studied rats exploring unfamiliar compartments in their cages - the laboratory equivalent of discovering a new store at the mall. When a rat explored a new place, dopamine surged in its brain's reward center. The study offers a warning about shopping in new stores or while out of town. People tend to make more extraneous purchases when they shop outside their own communities, says Indiana University professor Ruth Engs, who studies shopping addiction.
But MRI studies of brain activity suggest that surges in dopamine levels are linked much more with anticipation of an experience rather than the actual experience - which may explain why people get so much pleasure out of window-shopping or hunting for bargains.