Hardwired to Acquire

By Staff

There’s no surer way to bathe your brain in dopamine than to contemplate buying something. “Retail therapy” isn’t a learned behavior, the Ecologist reports in its February issue (article not available online), it’s the result of evolving from hunter-gatherers.

Our hand-to-mouth ancestors lived in the era of survival of the avaricious. In the Neolithic period, you crafted millions of hand-axes to display “what a high-status, reproductively worthwhile hominid you were.” According to a 2007 Journal of Neuroscience article, “hedonistic hotspots”–mechanisms for feeling desire–outnumber those for feeling pleasure, prodding us to lust over the prospect of more without giving us equal enjoyment upon attainment. Now, thanks to global capitalism, many in the Western world are able to accumulate even more, but with more serious environmental ramifications. Not only are our buying binges a holdover of a physical survival strategy, some scientists posit that we are practicing “terror management,” staving off feelings of mortality with more goods.

Rather than continue to consume and then stress about large-scale damage, the Ecologist advises us to learn to say enough and find a balance that is personally sustainable, not to succumb to the short-lived high of buying. We have to accept that we’re not immortal and that we can’t have it all, even if our brains try to convince us–they’re programmed “to persuade our bodies out of bed on cold mornings.” Making social connections, practicing gratitude, and cooperating are more sustainable ways to feel good.

Lisa Gulya

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.