Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Do You Buy Stuff to Feel Accomplished?

I spend a good deal of time outside and since it’s typically sunny in New York (it really is), I usually wear sunglasses. And when not in the sun, my sunglasses are either on my head or hanging from the collar of my shirt–perfect locations for either of my two boys to grab and throw onto the ground (don’t suggest a strap. I tried one and they either strangled me with it or tore the glasses off the strap, sending it to the ground all the same). My lenses are fairly scratched up right now–not horrible, but they need to be replaced sooner than later.

This morning I was looking at my to-do list feeling a little overwhelmed. There were long-term projects where I felt stuck. There were several tasks that require phone calls or lining up other people or putting together materials before I can even begin to check them off the list. But then I saw it: “buy lenses.” Stop everything. I could accomplish that!

I once went to workshop that taught me how to use the Franklin Planner. One of the most basic tools of the planner is prioritization. Tasks are assigned one of three values: A, which is urgent and important (think deadline tomorrow and putting out fires); B, which is not urgent but important (think working on that novel that doesn’t have a publisher yet); and C, which is not urgent or important (think rewatching the Godfather Trilogy). There are nuances inside these assignations and some include “Urgent but not important,” but that’s general overview.

In the context of my life, buying lenses was a solid C. They’re scratched, but I can see quite well out of them. Yet I felt the impulse to put the purchase ahead of many A’s and B’s.

The reason I, and many of us, prioritize shopping might be neurochemical. Studies have shown that shopping–impulse shopping in particular–releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction released when we experience something new, exciting or challenging. In other words, our brains might use purchases as a proxy for real accomplishment. Why climb a mountain or help a friend when we can buy some NOS high flange Campagnolo Nuevo Record track hubs? And unlike those difficult-to-accomplish things, shopping requires little skill or preparation. All we need is money…or credit.

The trouble is the sense of accomplishment doesn’t last. When the dopamine wears off, we want to re-up, which is how compulsive shopping is perpetuated.

Now I shouldn’t oversimplify the topic. Most readers of this blog are not likely to be compulsive shoppers. And not all purchases are made at the behest of neurochemical impulsive desires. Or if they are, they are alloyed with genuine need. Sometimes we just need to buy stuff and it might happen to feel good–neurochemically that is–to buy this needed stuff. I felt pretty good after we bought our apartment–a purchase that was the antithesis of impulsive.

But even the most ardent minimalist can find him or herself obsessing about a purchase–whether it’s the perfect pair of shoes or a composting toilet. In those moments, it might be good to remember that we could be in the throes of our physiology. It might be time to step back and remember that rich, meaningful lives are seldom defined by purchases made (and no, I don’t think Imelda Marcos counts). They’re defined by the relationships we tend, the contributions we make, the experiences we have–things that might not be acquired with one-click shopping, but things have a far more enduring impact on creating lasting happiness.

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