Shopping your way to happy – why do we keep buying more stuff?

A lot of holidays are associated with gift giving and receiving, and for me, that brings to mind the feeling of having enough. During this time of year, there is a huge focus on stuff – buying stuff to give to others, stuff to decorate our homes, stuff to wear for holiday events, stuff to take to holiday events, stuff to host events, etc. etc. etc.  Many of us will be out the night before the holiday. Why do we keep buying more stuff? It never seems like enough.

When I was a kid and even into my young adulthood, there were many times that I felt a letdown after opening gifts. I have very generous parents and the partners that I’ve been involved with have been giving and generous as well. But, for some reason, I often left the gift opening event feeling dissatisfied.

And then, I felt guilty since being unsatisfied must equal being ungrateful. I can’t say I was ungrateful though. I really was appreciative, just, somehow, not satisfied. I know, that sounds bad. It was that feeling of “not enough.”

The fear of not having enough prevents many from seeing that they already are enough.”

~Wayne Dyer

Why DO we keep buying more stuff?

Back when I was a young mother, I went shopping a lot. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was a bargain/clearance shopper. It made me feel good (and then… not so good).

I shopped a lot for clothing for my kids and myself. I also tried to find things that I could get cheaply that would make my house look like those in the magazines (pre-pinterest days), because if I had a home that looked like that, and we looked good in our new outfits, people would like us and we would be happy. That would be enough. Right?

Well, no. I mean yes, it felt good to get the new stuff, but of course the feeling didn’t last. I wasn’t feeling “all better” or that I finally had enough. There was never enough. And so the cycle continued.

We all joke about retail therapy, but it really is a kind of “therapy,” because shopping gives people the rush that comes from an increase in the feel-good hormones in our brain. says that, “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them.”


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Just the thought of shopping or planning to go shopping can be pleasurable, because dopamine is actually released in anticipation of the reward, not just the reward itself.

Then there’s the other term used in these situations – shopaholic – which has a bit of a negative connotation. Shopping really can be similar to other addictions. “For some of us, signs shouting one-day-only sale, clearance and 50% off, are not so different from the siren call for other types of addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, or even food” (

So, when I went shopping and got the cutest bargain outfits or some great matching bins that of course would completely transform my home (mhmmm), I got an immediate rush from the dopamine. But, the good feeling was short lived. And then there was the letdown that this was not in fact the one thing to make it all ok; and let’s not forget the guilt for spending money that I probably shouldn’t have.

The same would happen when I was opening gifts. I would feel a quick rush and the anticipation of getting something that would be THE thing that would make me happy or fulfill me so that I was enough.

Well, obviously I didn’t actually think that it would only take one thing, but the point is, I was always searching, always looking for something to fill me up…and none of the THINGS that I bought or received as gifts ever served to achieve that purpose. There could never be enough stuff to do that.

packages, buying more stuff

How much is enough to be happy?

As I am now exploring the feelings about why we keep buying more stuff, it makes sense to me, because I always had an underlying feeling of being unsatisfied. It didn’t matter what I had or didn’t have, I felt like it wasn’t enough. And, that I wasn’t enough. It makes me sad to think of myself in that place.

But, as I got older, those feelings were/are very few and very far between.

What happened to make me feel a sense of being satisfied? Why couldn’t I have felt satisfied before, in my life?

I was always looking outward for satisfaction and the feeling of “enough.” Or, looking towards a specific new thing or upcoming event.

Having struggled with depression, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t easy for me to see how I may have been feeling or what I was doing to try to feel better. And, having depression also keeps you from wanting to look at things to try because they seem too hard. They would seem to take so much energy, which I frequently lacked.

A couple years ago, as my children were getting older and no longer hanging out with me and or requiring as much of my time and energy, I started finding things that filled me up – things that challenged me and peaked my interest. I enjoy being creative and finally recognized that I have skills or gifts in this area. I started practicing mindfulness and began meditating and doing some low impact exercising.

When I began establishing these practices, the “need” for stuff, to make me feel fulfilled or to get to the feeling of enough, gradually decreased. I find “enough” inside of me or internally and not from buying a new sweater or pair of shoes and not from a particular gift. I really didn’t need to keep buying more stuff!

happiness isn't about buying more stuff

Happiness isn’t a destination (or thing)

Happiness does not come once we get that new thing or finish the painting project or get the raise we’ve waited for. There is happiness in the journey, in the day to day work on the projects, in the effort that goes into making things look nice, in the drive to the store, in the travels, in the time spent in the company of those we love.

The happiness is not in the gifts we receive. The happiness is in the time spent together opening the gifts, making the memories, establishing the traditions. When I think back on my childhood, I don’t remember many of the gifts I received, but one in particular was a “boom box.” I know you guys remember those! I think I had asked for it and it wasn’t under the tree, but my dad got it out after all of the other gifts were opened.

It was the surprise that I remember. The thought he put into making it special for me. Those are the kinds of things that are important and that make us happiest. The smells coming from the kitchen. The laughs we shared when dancing around to the holiday music while decorating the tree.

I always “knew” this but what I didn’t know was how to achieve the internal feeling of enough-ness. I’m super grateful for what has been happening in my life over the past few years and extremely excited about the future.

Oh, and just so you know – I still love shopping. I get super excited about a good bargain; love the thrift stores and consignment shops! But I don’t have a frequent urge to upgrade or get something new all the time. I am so grateful that I have a lot of other things that fill me up.

If you feel like you just keep buying more stuff all the time, I hope that this has given you some things to think about. And I really hope that you have found that internal feeling of enough-ness, but if not, I hope that you may be a little bit inspired to take some steps towards finding what can fill you up. Or maybe you just needed a little reminder to notice the joy in the precious moments that you are spending with your loved ones this season!

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Anne

    I wish I knew this when I was younger. Hopefully I can instill this in my children at a young age.

    1. Lisa

      Ah yes, if only the children would “listen” to this kind of wisdom. Good luck, Anne!

  2. eva @costumetakeout

    i get tons of dopamine fixes–shopping & food are my big ones…learning to curb them has been easier as i’ve gotten older…i’m getting close to 50….

    1. Lisa

      Hi, Eva, I agree – it has gotten easier as I’ve aged as well!

  3. Ann

    This post is a great reminder that stuff , no matter the price tag, doesn’t make us happy. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Lisa

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Ann!

  4. Kim Cook

    Great reminders about stuff. You are right, it’s not fulfilling. We are somewhat empty nesters and have begun to get rid of things that don’t make us happy or serve a purpose in our home.

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