“Hunger and self-control do not go hand in hand.”

– Kathy Freston

Like most of you, I’ve been seeing a lot of holiday ads lately. It seems like they started somewhere before Halloween this year, with stuffed Santa Claus’s showing up right next to the pre-lit pumpkins.  And now I hear that Black Friday was extended to Black Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday-and-Monday-morning!




Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-shopping and gift-giving. For me, especially with my beautiful wife and two terrific kids, shopping for their holiday gifts brings me real joy.


But what irks me is watching advertisers and retailers try to whip up a desperate craving in us to Buy, Buy, Buy! especially at this time of year.


And honestly? Many of us are easy targets. The holidays bring up all kinds of memories, unfulfilled dreams, and ancient desires. Consciously and unconsciously, we believe that this particular time of year is supposed to be better, more magical and more satisfying than the rest of the year. Our expectations are much higher, for everything from the quality of our relationships to how our cookies turn out.


It’s a kind of hunger. And advertisers definitely use it to their advantage!


Even with the TV on mute, you’re still aware of that loving couple holding hands as they watch their adorable 7 year old light up with joy as he unwraps the latest remote controlled helicopter. Clearly, if you want your family to be that happy, you need one of those things!


Or what about the jewelry ads? “Every kiss begins with Kay.” “A diamond is forever.” “Crystal gets closer to the body than ever before.” Wow! Don’t you want some of that?!?


Now, maybe you’re too sophisticated to fall for those specific ads. But as I look around, it seems like there’s an intense, pervasive energy of heightened desire at this time of year that’s pretty easy to fall into. We “crave” more out of life, and shopping seems to be way to satisfy that craving.


And it’s all in our heads—literally.


Scientists use fMRI to examine what our brain does while shopping. Seeing a product we desire activates the nucleus accumbens, which is associated with the anticipation of pleasure. If the cost of that product is higher than we thought or more than we wanted to spend, our insula (the pain center is activated).


As the researchers explain it, when we’re shopping, basically we’re weighing anticipated pleasure against immediate pain. And as our “anticipated pleasure” becomes more intense (after seeing all those ads), the immediate pain has to be greater as well to stop us from buying. Interestingly, if we pay with credit cards or deferred payments, the pain is automatically “numbed.”


So a great item that has promised to make us happy and can be bought on credit will certainly to end up in our shopping cart—even if we don’t want it or can’t afford it! But we can avoid that trap.


First, acknowledge and feed the real hunger. Just like you are less likely to over-buy at the grocery store when you’re full, when you are emotionally “full,” you’re less likely to overspend on gifts or treats for yourself.


And check your “shopping motivation.” Think about it: When you give a gift to impress someone or make them happy or make them love you, doesn’t that feel more like craving? Like you’re filling a void? How about shopping for yourself because you’re feeling down?


On the flip side, how about shopping for a gift to show your appreciation or love for someone? Or shopping for yourself because you’re feeling good about yourself? To me, this kind of shopping experience feels more fun and satisfying rather than hungry and desperate.


Rather than getting caught up in the holiday craving, let whatever shopping and gift-giving you do really give you pleasure!


Oh, and one last tip: Researchers at Bangor University found that, after about 23 minutes in a store, we tend to make decisions with the emotional part of our brain rather than the analytical part. After 40 minutes, the typical brain stops making rational decisions altogether—so you may want to keep your holiday shopping excursions brief!


Mele Kalikimaka!


Until next time. . .