Why Do We Shop?

It’s the season for shopping, both for others and oneself. And if you’re a teacher, it’s a good time to raise questions about our consumer society.


For many years I had a clear distaste for shopping, especially in malls. I’m not talking about buying necessities, like food when the refrigerator is empty, or a new coat when it’s winter and your only coat is torn. I’m talking about recreational shopping. When you feel you need a new shirt when you have several or a lightweight down coat when you have two already. But once and awhile, the urge creeps in. One minute, I can feel that I have everything I need, for now and years to come. And then, a few minutes later, maybe influenced by a catalogue arriving in the mail, and I feel a desire for something new. Why shop for things other than necessities? Why is shopping so seductive?


There are many reasons, but I want to pick out a few. Of course, we are bombarded with messages in the media. Our society is built on social conditioning to look to possessions to solve our emotional needs. Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses ” but I sometimes wonder if it’s shopping. After 9/11, as our economy was dipping towards recession, our President urged us to do our civic duty and “go shopping,” as if that would solve our national problems. We are taught to think how we look and what we have gives status.


Some of my students over the years denied this conditioning and claimed that advertising did not affect them, so I tried various strategies to increase their awareness of the influence of media and the importance of examining the ethical implications of actions. I sometimes taught the psychology of persuasion and mindfulness of thoughts and self-images. I also had students read reports from the riots of Detroit and Watts in the mid-1960s, where the goods most stolen by looters were the most advertised [I couldn’t find the source for this] and were in stores where African-Americans were not respectfully treated.


To some degree, buying something is getting oneself a present. Presents show care, that we’re loved and valued. Shopping can be an adventure, if you care about what you’re shopping for. My favorite shopping is for books. To find a book that meets and expands my knowledge in an area I value is exciting. And what about clothing? Most clothes shopping bores me, unless it is for what I consider “different” or beautiful or when the very act of buying is more personal, like an acknowledgement. For example, when I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I loved buying shirts made locally and from the craftsmen and women who made them.


Often, people try to define themselves with clothes and other possessions and this is where many problems arise. Maybe you see an ad for running shoes, and you imagine yourself as a runner or an athlete. You project yourself into this external image as if your joy or happiness resided in the clothes or shoes—or books. A new you is born. It’s like magic. You pay money and you turn a mental image into a physically new you.


You might feel, “If only I had that, I’d be so much more attractive”? Or, “If I had that car, I’d be free!” But what happens to your sense of yourself without that possession, or if you can’t afford it? You feel poorer. When you crave an object, you desire it because you make yourself feel deficient without it. In fact, creating an image of a self dependent on external factors for happiness, is part of the Buddhist analysis of suffering. Advertising throws in your face what you don’t have. Our consumer economy is particularly oppressive to those with little money. And even if you do have the money, what happens after you spend it? Maybe a few weeks later, you feel the same as before, or worse. You crave a new identity, maybe this time with a new jacket. But the self-image we create out of this possession is just an image in the mind. It’s ephemeral; it disappears like smoke. And when it does, we are once again left emptier than before.


Actually, I left out a step. When I returned home with my new jacket, I knew exactly where I put it in the closet. I created with the jacket a zone of aliveness around it. When I put it on, I felt new. When something new or fast moving enters the scene, we give it our attention. The new and surprising attract us, and the chronic and the everyday escape our notice. A new possession can awaken our sense of aliveness.


Yet, everything is changing every second. We know this. We are change. To breathe, our lungs expand as we inhale, contract in order to exhale. To speak, my mouth must move, change. That’s life. Why don’t we feel it?  We dull the perception of constant change with possessions, self-images, ideas, expectations, habits, and things we ingest. But the reality can’t be long suppressed. It must find a means of expression. So, for many, we shop.


Why not learn how to keep the mind fresh without depending on possessions? Why not sharpen awareness instead of dulling it? Many people have raised these questions. Can our world continue to support us at this rate of consumption? Can we create an economy that fosters social and political awareness and compassion instead of consumerism and competition? Can working for a more equitable distribution of wealth lead to more resources for more people? We must answer these with the way we live our lives, not only for ourselves but for our students and our world. This is the ultimate homework assignment.



*Photo By Ben Schumin (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons