Let’s face it: “stuff” is the enemy of a healthy planet. As we buy more and more stuff, landfills grow fuller, the earth becomes more polluted, our homes get more cluttered, and we become less happy. I recently posted on Instagram about how moving out of my apartment made me acutely aware of just how many material things I own. There were boxes upon boxes of clothes and shoes and books and plates and cups and on and on. And then moving into a new place just renewed my desire to buy more stuff. “Oh wow,” I thought, “now I have this big empty wall that I didn’t have in the last place, I probably need to buy something new to fill it.” And then I stopped myself. More stuff is not the answer. It’s time for me to make a conscious effort to not only think carefully about which items I should buy (the ethically-made, sustainably-packaged ones, of course), but whether I should buy them at all.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Buying new things is fun and exciting. Who wouldn’t want the latest cell phone or a fresh new outfit? In fact, our capitalist society is built on the assumption that we all want to buy new things all the time. Marketing convinces us to buy a thing, we feel good for a minute, and then the novelty fades away and it’s on to the next new thing. This cycle is not only detrimental to the planet, but it also negatively impacts our mental health and well-being. But does it have to be this way? Surely there are other, better things we could be doing that will make us happier than buying stuff, right?
These thoughts are what prompted me to come up with a list of things to do that don’t involve shopping. When I researched this topic, I found lots of lists like this that suggested dozens, if not hundreds, of activities you can do besides buying stuff. They will tell you to read a magazine, or go window shopping, or smell some roses. At best, lists like this probably won’t really help you shop less, and at worst, they may even make you want to shop more. Honestly, has anyone ever gone “window shopping” without wanting to buy more stuff? Instead, I decided to create a list of things you can do that will actually make you feel better then shopping. I also wanted that list to be based on scientific research, rather than stuff somebody made up because it sounded like a good idea. In other words, if you give it a chance, this stuff will actually work!
But before we get to the list, it’s important to understand why we feel the urge to shop in the first place. There’s a thrill we get when we buy something new; it’s a form of instant gratification. In biological terms, what’s actually happening is that our brains receive a hit of dopamine after a new purchase. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for the feelings of reward or pleasure. It’s the reason that caffeine, sugar, tobacco, and shopping make us feel good. But that feeling doesn’t last. In fact, the aforementioned things that provide a quick boost to dopamine levels actually disrupt the natural process of dopamine production and end up leaving us with lower dopamine levels over time. That’s what makes us feel like we need to constantly buy more stuff, and why buying more stuff doesn’t actually make us happier. Instead, we can take advantage of healthier methods of increasing dopamine that will be more effective over the long-term. So next time you feel like shopping, try doing one of these activities instead.
If you’ve ever seen Legally Blonde, you know that exercise gives you endorphins. But it also increases levels of dopamine and serotonin. Basically, all the feel-good neurotransmitters. This is why exercise is hands-down one of the best ways to relieve stress, make us more productive, slow down the aging of brain cells, and generally improve both physical and mental health (source). And the best part? You don’t have to do anything strenuous–just going for a walk will do the trick.
- Eat foods rich in tyrosine.
Tyrosine is an amino acid essential to the production of dopamine, which we’ve already learned is responsible for boosting your mood and making you feel good. Through healthy bodily functions, a diet rich in tyrosine can increase the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine in your brain (source). Bananas, almonds, avocados, eggs, chicken, fish, beans, and dairy products are just some of the foods rich in tyrosine. Also, eating a healthy snack in general is not a bad way to curb your shopping habit because studies show that hunger can negatively affect decision-making and impulse control. The key here, though, is healthy. As I mentioned before, foods high in sugar will give you a temporary boost in dopamine, but will reduce your dopamine levels long-term.
Countless studies have demonstrated the benefits of meditation, not the least of which are effectively increasing dopamine and creating feelings of pleasure. Meditation counteracts the effects of overthinking, which can cause us to feel distracted, frustrated, and stressed. Meditation has even been shown to have long-term positive effects, which is a lot more than we can say for the fleeting happiness of buying a new pair of shoes.
- Get a massage.
To maintain high levels of dopamine and avoid quick fixes like shopping, it’s important to reduce stress, and what better way to reduce stress than by getting a massage? According to research from the University of Miami, massage therapy can reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) by about 30% and increase dopamine by roughly the same amount. So the next time you feel like blowing $75 at Target (you know what happens when you walk through those doors), book a massage instead!
- Listen to music.
Listening to music can improve mood, increase energy levels, and enhance concentration (source). Why? It raises dopamine levels, of course! This explains why music has been so highly valued across much of human history. A word of warning though, marketers have also been known to leverage the power of music to get you to buy things. If you hear a catchy song during a TV commercial, you might be tricked into thinking that it’s the product being advertised, not the song itself, that will make you happy. So instead of letting yourself be fooled into buying something, go listen to some music (preferably commercial-free) instead.
- Get some sleep.
I’ll keep this brief because you already know that sleep is important. What you might not know is that a lack of sleep can reduce the concentration of neurotransmitters, including dopamine (source). So hit the sheets, not the mall, for natural, sustained feelings of happiness.
- Spend your time and money on others.
‘Tis better to give than to receive. This isn’t just an old saying; it’s actually been demonstrated by scientific evidence! Acts of generosity, like donating money to your favorite nonprofit or giving someone a gift (preferably a non-material one), have actually been shown to make people happier than if they were to have spent that same amount of money on themselves. And let’s not forget about gifts of time–volunteering or helping out a friend are likely to leave you feeling a whole lot better than if you had spent that time browsing on Amazon.
- Take up a creative hobby.
Writing, painting, singing, dancing, and other creative pursuits can cause us to enter a highly focused and rewarding state called flow (source). Dopamine is the substance that makes this state possible. You know that feeling when you’re working on something and then you look at the clock and somehow hours have passed by unnoticed? That’s what flow is. It’s rewarding, energizing, and it doesn’t rely on material things (I’m actually thinking about writing a separate post on the concept of flow, so let me know if you’d like to learn more about it!). By taking up a creative hobby, free from comparison or judgment of your abilities, you’ll forget all about shopping and develop an outlet that brings you more pleasure than all the new clothes in the world ever could.