Why Drunk Shopping is Big Business
Amazon as therapist
Drunk shopping is bringing in the big bucks. By some estimates, people in the US alone spend close to $50 billion a year on shopping sprees they only remember the next morning.
If you think about it, it’s not really that surprising. Shopping is an activity that tests our self-control at the best of times, so it’s not difficult to imagine what happens when alcohol mixes with Amazon: all the wares of the world, with none of that good judgment holding you back.
Congrats on your purchase!
On the face of it, shopping drunk seems like a case of losing control. After all, alcohol slows down our senses and erases our ability to reason. But what if the action itself stems from a desire to exercise control?
The paradox of alcohol is that while it hampers us physically and mentally, it gives us a sense of invincibility proportional to the volume we have consumed. Maybe, the things we do while drunk just reflect a fundamental human desire to make things happen in the world through our actions.
Which brings us to the larger point about spending money to buy things.
When you purchase stuff you are essentially fulfilling a need. It could be an objective one like wanting nicer clothes, or a subjective one like the pleasure of owning something which isn’t essential to your survival (luxury goods, for example). But apart from fulfilling an objective or subjective need, does spending money satisfy another, hidden motive?
Maybe spending money also sends a subtle signal to ourselves that we have the ability to spend money. Being able to afford stuff is a kind of power, which you can unleash on the world and see things happen. Spending money allows you to exercise autonomy, to take an action of your own accord and see the world react to it.
Which is probably why the real thrill of shopping lies in the actual moment of purchase. That moment of transition where you go from not owning something to owning it is what makes shopping — especially online shopping — so irresistible.
Whenever you doubt your abilities or rue the lack of progress on important projects, or are just plain bored, impulsive shopping can provide an easy way out. It gives you the sense of movement without really doing anything substantial: buying a motivational book instead of just getting started; buying workout clothes instead of just hitting the gym; or just buying some random stuff because it fills some part of you which feels incomplete.
When the anxiety of non-movement becomes too much you are compelled to act and a frictionless, one-click shopping experience can provide the perfect release.
Stress is often the trigger for such action. When we feel we are lacking control the brain and body respond by generating stress, which in turn compels us to do something to regain that control. Which is why we’re prone to taking short-term decisions when stressed. The objective is not to take the correct decision, but one that makes you feel in charge.
The simplest way to feel a sense of control is to see your actions having an affect in the real world. The dark side of any impulsive action — including shopping — is that it provides a convenient channel for action, and an easy illusion of control.
Every desire is essentially a desire for change. A change from who we are, to who we would like to become. When we buy something, we are filling in a gap that exists between the present us and the person we wish we were. The ease of online shopping means the prospect of such a change is tantalisingly within reach. While real change requires effort and a change in habits, buying things is a convenient proxy for meaningful action.
Now even though you’ve made something happen in the world when you buy something, a possession doesn’t really change you. That’s because real change is the result of a journey where your understanding of the world and how you interact with it has changed in some significant way. A surface change is ephemeral and unsatisfactory, because your own contribution to that change is limited.
In fact, we are wired to value what we achieve through our own efforts, more than something that is simply given to us. A feeling of competence, of having the ability to make things happen in your environment is such a basic drive that without it we might feel dissatisfied even when having all the comforts in the world.
For instance, you can’t feel the same if you’re helicoptered to the top of a peak versus hiking your way up there. Results without effort might bring pleasure, but not happiness or fulfilment. These states demand your involvement: you don’t get to be happy if you had little role to play in the final outcome.
More broadly, all the ultimate things that we seek — happiness, fulfilment, meaning — can only be found indirectly, via a journey taken through many milestones. You can’t shortcut your way to any of them.
Why is that so?
Maybe because every person has a desire to be a hero, as American psychologist Ernest Becker wrote. To be awarded a higher status than our fellow beings, to feel the warm glow of prestige is a primal need. But you can’t just imagine yourself as heroic or buy prestige: it has to be given to you by others.
You have to use your talents and resources to create something other people value, and only then you get to even entertain the thought of being a hero. In other words, you have to become a creator.
You must build something — art, a business, a new scientific understanding, a new nation, a new system of thought — or just show people that something is possible. The conviction, and the proof, that you are heroic comes from outside you, from other people.
If this is true, then creating cannot be the sole preserve of artists. Rather, it has to be an inextricable part of our existence: if you want a certain kind of life, you must create it. All the justifications we give ourselves for not doing something, or the shortcuts we take to lessen our anxiety, are attempts to solve ‘problems’, whereas what we need is to create what we want.
To paraphrase Jung, you can’t really rid yourself of your problems, you can only create the solutions you want.
Which brings us back to the quest for control.
In a word, creation is the only way to find control. Control is not about dominance or fitting reality into boxes you wish to see it in. Nor is it about managing your anxiety via easily available distraction.
Rather, control stems from asking yourself a fundamental question: what is your unique talent and how can you use it to not only enrich your own life, but also help others?
Modern technology makes us believe that control is about walling yourself off from others and satisfying your own urges and desires. But real control is about making a contribution and connecting with others through it.
Real autonomy is not about standing apart, but being useful while exercising your own unique gifts.