Maybe I’m weird, but shopping stresses me out. Yet, I seem to love window shopping.
In part, this is why sewing is such an appealing hobby for me. I love clothes. I love the colors and textures, the creative possibilities in building a particular look, the small details that make seemingly similar pieces really interesting and special.
But there’s something about the act of actually shopping and spending money on clothing that is emotionally loaded for me. I feel overwhelmed by all the choices. I feel manipulated by the marketing tactics and advertisements and trends. I feel guilt over spending on something so frivolous. I fear the disappointment of buying the wrong thing.
When you sew, there’s a way to “shop” while you avoid most of that. Instead of shopping for something to buy, you turn your attention to shopping for inspiration.
Still, I wondered: Why does shopping bring up all these emotions? And is “shopping for inspiration” really all that different?
Your brain on shopping
The answer to these questions turned out to be even more complex and fascinating than I’d thought.
First, let’s look at why shopping is so pleasurable.
Our brains have been wired over the millennia to encourage us to do behaviors that will increase our chances of survival, or the survival of our species. Our brains find sex pleasurable because it leads to procreation. High calorie and fat laden foods are pleasurable because eating more of them makes us less likely to starve. Acquiring things in an environment of scarcity is also more likely to lead to our survival.
We didn’t evolve in a world where french fries were plentiful, so what was good for our ancestors isn’t necessarily good for us now. It’s the same with the desire for material goods. As early humans, it was advantageous to gather resources whenever possible. But now we live in a world of constant desire, of sophisticated marketing, and of cheap and plentiful goods.
It’s all very confusing to our acquisition-oriented brains. There’s just so much more to acquire.
The Pleasure of Shopping
So if our brains are wired to seek the thrill of shopping, and if shopping today is so easy, why do I feel so crappy about it?
Let’s first look at how the pleasure of shopping works. When you are window shopping, your brain is being flooded with a chemical called dopamine.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine before. This is a part of the rewards system in the brain, and it’s often referred to as a pleasure chemical. Dopamine makes you feel good.
At least, that’s what I’d always heard about it.
What Really Goes on in Your Head
It turns out, dopamine works in a much more complicated way. Dopamine’s job is not merely to make you feel good for some action that you’re taking, but to actually create a desire to continue doing it.
The difference might seem subtle, but it’s important. Animals that can’t produce dopamine can still feel pleasure. But they are not capable of anticipating that pleasure and pursuing it.
So yes, dopamine produces pleasure. But it also produces an intense feeling of want that can be extremely uncomfortable. That combination of pleasure (“that thing is beautiful and will make me happier”) and discomfort (“I feel uncomfortable not having that thing”) spurs us to action (whipping out the credit card).
The problem is, we mistake the pleasure of this dopamine response for real happiness. Humans are actually really terrible at predicting what will make them happy, and this is just one example.
If you’ve ever witnessed someone with an addiction or compulsion, you know that dopamine is not responsible for happiness. Even when the drug or behavior brings temporary pleasure, there’s nothing happy about feeling compelled by constant desire.
You might have seen this in more subtle ways with friends and family. If you’ve ever had a friend ignore you while compulsively checking facebook on their phone, they are essentially prioritizing the immediate jolt of dopamine over the true long-term friendship that could make them sustainably more happy.
Sidestepping the want
So how do we avoid this compulsive trick of the brain, especially in a world that’s designed to exploit it?
The answer is clearly not to try to suppress the flood of dopamine entirely. After all, desire certainly has its place, and can be a great motivator for all kinds of good behavior. Without desire, we wouldn’t create anything.
Instead, I believe we can be mindful about what our brains are doing, and change our behavior to channel the dopamine response in the right direction. For me, that direction is creativity.
This is one of the ways being a sewist has improved my life. Instead of looking at pretty clothes and feeling the pangs of desire and the confusion of choice, instead of giving my energy over to the temporary buzz of material acquisition, I can direct that desire into a creative act.
And creativity, I believe, is one of the greatest sources of happiness. I really believe that using your individual creative powers to make something, to learn new skills, and to develop your identity is one of the most powerful things we can do for ourselves.
When I choose to use my pleasure in looking at clothing for creativity instead of acquisition, I am choosing the life-sustaining source of happiness over the short-term high.
Just like that real friend who will be with you always versus the quick and satisfying Facebook “like”, you have the choice.
When I sew, I am choosing a lifelong friendship.
How does sewing affect your desire for things? Does it change the way you shop, and the thoughts that go through your head when you do?