I was heading back to my car, both my hands holding on to all the bags with Christmas gifts I had just bought. I had just spent a little fortune and not a single one of those bags was for me. And best of all, I was actually feeling quite good about it. Did I do it out of a sense of duty? Nope. Was I moved by altruistic urges? Nope. Did I decide to just financially ruin myself? Not likely. So what just happened to me…
What happened? Dopamine happened!
You see, what makes an experience pleasant, is the release of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is a chemical, a neurotransmitter that is involved with a lot of things. One of them has to do with reward and pleasure. It’s really the Sex, drugs and Rock ‘n roll of chemicals. It’s the bad boy, the one you don’t want your daughter to go out with. just to give you an idea, dopamine gets released when we take cocaine, when we have sex, when we gamble, do i need to go on? Ok, I’m giving bad press to my boy here. It’s not only that. It’s also involved in attention for example. Or eating chocolate. But it’s just more fun to talk about the ‘bad’ stuff.
Dopamine and behavioral patterns:
Rewards and expectations
The brain handles pleasure in a very distinct and easily identifiable way- by releasing Dopamine. Studies have shown that it is closely linked to an expectations and rewards pattern, where the person expects to be rewarded with pleasure or pleasant feelings when they do certain things. It is also the base on which addictions are built. Take for example a person addicted to smoking, they will feel the urge to pick up a cigarette and this urge will tell them that the reward will be pleasure. The behavior of the person, from craving to finally being able to smoke is the rewards path. When they finally smoke, the brain will release Dopamine, making the person feel like it was worth it.
The time delay between abusing a drug of choice and subsequent release of Dopamine dictates how quickly a person will get addicted to it. Substances like Cocaine, Heroin, and nicotine work almost instantly. Every drug has a different way of working, but all of them are sensed and satisfaction comes from Dopamine. It can be said that every addiction, be it drugs or otherwise, all comes down to that dope feeling. But the real addiction comes from the fact that with each repetition of the action, there will be less dopamine released. Thus we will need more of the same to get the same kick…
If you have ever worked your way out of an addiction or helped a friend go through it, you will know first hand how difficult it can be, this is because the rejection of rewards will cause the brain to read it in a way that is similar to physical pain. So the sad songs were true, rejection hurts, literally.
One of the most enjoyable things that we regularly indulge in is shopping. You might have seen many videos of people rushing in crowds on Black Friday. In that scenario, a person may believe that they will be the one to get a huge TV for a mere $100. This makes them pursue it, which is the expectation part of the path and they believe themselves to be winners when they actually do get the reward.
Among the many things that Dopamine makes us do impulsively is shopping. Though not as destructive as drugs, shopping in itself can be an addiction. Impulsive shopping can give us a strong high. Even if the guilt and low bank balance quickly follows it. There is also proof to suggest that retail therapy is a real thing in that, shopping can be beneficial for some to calm them down, and express creativity.
The holidays, however, present us, shoppers, with reduced guilt as opposed to other times of the year. ‘It’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake!’ we may tell ourself, ‘There is really no harm in spending a bit of money on myself and family.’ When there is a chance for guilt-free indulgence, the high that the Dopamine provides is a lot stronger and we eventually get conditioned to instinctively shop during that time of the year. It is a Pavlovian reaction to the time of year, fueled by a Dopamine high.
But that does not make it a bad thing! In the end, everything we feel, everything we experience and all our thoughts and actions are regulated by complex chemical interactions in the body. Unless such mechanisms come in the way of functioning normally (whatever our definition of “normal” is), it is absolutely fine to let them be.
So go ahead! Treat yourself to a double dopamine rush this Christmas. The first one when you find what you were looking for. And the second one watching the face of your relatives while they unpack your gifts.