Repeatedly seeking that “feel good” effect can be the beginning of a problem that is more that we than bargained for.
PHOTO: © Glowimages – Model is for illustrative purposes only

The thrill of the hunt at this time of year is not necessarily to be found in looking for big game in wintry woods; but rather, it’s in hunting through the malls and amongst the aisles of stores, with their heavy discounts on everything from socks to computers. Here, hordes of happy shoppers revel in the search for the perfect Boxing Day deal. “It feels so good when you get the bargain you have been really looking for. I find it relieves my stress. I don’t get depressed when I am shopping,” explained a friend after a victorious day wading through the crowds.

However, the problem for her, as for many shoppers, is what to do when the ‘happy’ effect wears off, or when the stress builds up again after a difficult day and the credit card bill looks overwhelming. For many, the answer is to repeatedly seek that “feel good” effect. And that can be the beginning of a larger problem than bargained for. But finding lasting happiness and satisfaction is the key to our health.

According to research, people who find enjoyment from shopping are experiencing a temporary “shoppers high.” Neuroscientists increasingly understand the role that brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin play in our urge to find satisfaction and pleasure from certain activities, such as shopping.

Joked about in novels and laughed at in TV sitcoms and stand-up comedy routines, this issue is rarely seen as a serious problem; but, it is swiftly becoming one.

The darker side to this feel-good experience is that, while the brain releases chemicals that temporarily ease our sense of discomfort or give us a fleeting reward that we feel entitled to, it also plays a role in addictive behaviours.

According to the American Psychological Association, an estimated 15 million Americans are compulsive shoppers – 90 percent being women. And the problem is not just limited to the USA – we also have this problem in Canada.

In fact, many doctors are now recognizing “shopoholism” as an addiction that has health consequences. Researchers at Stanford University are working to develop a medication to ease this hidden problem.

We don’t need yet another medication to solve this problem.

When we become dependent on human activities and circumstances to create happiness, relieve stress or to fill a vacuüm in our lives, we inadvertently medicate ourselves with brain chemicals. And it’s not just shopping that does this: activities such as running can cause a similar temporary euphoric experience called a “runner’s high.”

Discussing this with a friend of mine, she shared her experience of being addicted to the “runner’s high” and how she found her freedom from it.

“I used to run 8-10 miles every day or every other day. I definitely experienced what they call a ‘runner’s high,’ and this was long before they had any lab results indicating it might exist. This was very much an addiction. If I did not get my run, I was irritable, nasty to people, moody and depressed. I also experienced chronic trouble with one knee. But that didn’t keep me from seeking my ‘fix.’

“After about 5 years of this, I decided I no longer wanted to be addicted to running and the terrible side effects of the ‘high.’ I also realized that it was not in keeping with my spiritual practice of prayer and honoring God alone any more than a drug or alcohol-induced high would be.

“Over the course of a few months, I replaced the high mileage (time spent) running with more time in prayer and a wider variety of activities – biking, hiking, etc. I had more fun and more time with good friends. The result was I no longer ‘had’ to get a run [in] every day. It was also the end to my depression and moodiness. I discovered a greater, more stable sense of joy. Additionally, I am very active but I have had no knee problem for more than 25 years now. It was a good lesson for me in following Jesus’ counsel: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all these things will be added unto you.’”

The Christian apostle, Paul,  faced challenges such as physical problems, loss and imprisonment, shipwrecks and public disdain. During that period he made the discovery that real joy has a spiritual origin. It doesn’t come from human circumstances or activities or from getting “high.” Best of all, it is not the only spiritual quality we have.

From his own experience, Paul wrote an inspiring list of spiritual qualities that, even in the darkest of human circumstances, we can all find, just as he did – untouched and indestructible.

“But the Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control.” These qualities are better than a “shoppers high,” – they are stable and permanent.

This article was published in the Vancouver Sun

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My interest in the relationship between health and spirituality propelled me to begin writing about this topic a couple of years ago.

I am a regular contributor to several news outlets, including The Times Colonist newspaper both in print and online with the blog, Spiritually Speaking which is hosted by the Times Colonist. I also write on an interfaith blog, A Spiritual View, hosted by the Vancouver Courier.

My long-time Christian healing practice and more recent writing journey has resulted in many interesting connections with health professionals with different perspectives lead sometimes to more questions, as well as discoveries about the healing needs of – and answers for – our world.