Does Buying Things Make Us Happier

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People all around the world understand the excitement that young children and even some adults have on Christmas morning. This is a time of giving but also receiving and buying gifts, possibly ones that you have been waiting for all year. With sales in stores left and right, and new items being released almost every day of December, people become excited for what they could possibly receive from their friends or loved ones. Once someone finally receives the gift, they feel so happy and grateful, and immediately use it to show the person who gave it to them how happy they are. However, after a few weeks, sometimes even days, people stop using what they have received, and it doesn’t give them that same excitement as when they did not have it.

Interestingly, the reasoning behind this odd phenomenon is the chemical found within the brain known as dopamine. Dopamine is one of the four major chemicals released in the brain responsible for the feeling we know as happiness. Shown in a study done by Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist who studies this chemical, humans experience the release of dopamine when we anticipate receiving something that we enjoy. In his study, Sapolsky worked with monkeys, and trained them so that when a light was flashed, and they pressed a button ten times, they would receive a treat. What Sapolsky was surprised to find was that the monkeys experienced a spike in dopamine not when they actually received and ate the treat, but once they saw the light flash in front of them. The chemical spiked in the brain due to the anticipation of a treat rather than the treat itself. After the treat was eaten, dopamine levels in the monkeys decreased. This study explains why in the days leading up to Christmas, people feel giddy, excited, and happy. They are experiencing high dopamine levels in response to their anticipation of a “treat” on Christmas day. However, in the days after Christmas, they are not as happy as they now have what they have been waiting for.

Though I have been talking a lot about Christmas, the same is true when someone goes out shopping, which is why someone can experience a “shopper’s high.” The anticipation of buying a new item releases dopamine, but once that person actually has the item, this short burst of pleasure is quickly gone.

Lifelong happiness is typically not made up of these short bursts of pleasure, but it is more dependent on how content someone is with what they have done in the world, and how well they were able to live. At the end of their lives, people typically look back at the things they have done, the people they have helped, hurt, or raised. Most people do not judge how happy they are with their lives based on what they have or how much they have, they judge this happiness on the relationships they have created with others. Although short bursts of happiness do come from material accumulation and practicality, happiness in the long term is affected by the relationships created with others, and the effects one has had on the world.