As high school approached its end, I was excited to buy my graduation suit. I had worked at a fancy clothing store for a year by then, so I figured I knew my way around fashion. Just two months prior, I had bought a pair of dress shoes that fit and felt perfect. I thought that my experience with both sales and customers was going to help me in the process of choosing the perfect graduation suit.
I was wrong.
The day I decided to purchase my graduation suit, I spent enough time at the store that it brought on a headache.
Perhaps you have been in a similar situation. The frustration-ensuing, anxiety-kicking, discomfort-entering feeling, where the vein in your forehead is about to burst. All that for what seems like the inability to complete a simple purchase.
But why? The answer, and the complexity of our decision-making processes as customers is equally fascinating. As we strive to become conscious of what is driving us to purchase a product, this becomes more and more relevant to how we navigate our lives.
Imagine you are walking into a store, confidently thinking of an item. You feel sure that you need it, and you know you are going to buy it. If you’re like me, and most other people, countless recollections of this likely flood your memory. But then, we feel this confidence drop towards the ground as we contemplate the countless headphones, shirts, books, and beverages that stare right at us. How are we supposed to choose the right laptop out of a hundred of options if we couldn’t even decide what latte to order this morning?
This is what some call the paradox of choice. The more options we have, the happier we will be. And yet, my experience picking out my graduation suit seemed to indicate just the opposite. The options of color, fit, lapel, and number of buttons were endless. I only wanted a suit but was putting the mental effort I needed to buy a car!
I realized how difficult it was to narrow down my choices while remaining conscious of my preferences. Engaging our thoughtful and critical self helps us arrive at the much-wanted choice. Take a deep breath. Make a pros and cons list in your head. Ask if you really want that new pair of shoes, or if that birthday money could be spent on something else. As with everything else, though, that mental effort we exert comes at a cognitive cost.
“I’m smart with my money, I’ll make sure I get a good deal,” I thought as I walked out of the house. I ended up going over my budget. Nearly four hours later, I had a suit, two ties, three pairs of socks, and a new pocket square. Essentially, I had shopped for the MET gala, not my high school prom. I felt a mild discomfort. I did not know this then, but there was an obvious value-action gap. Back then, I dismissed it using an old trick: “you never know when you are going to need it,” I told myself. And just like that, the discomfort was, at least momentarily, gone.
We often justify our spending behaviors with what we think is the best-fitting rationale. As we line up at the register in the grocery store with 12 more items than we need, our brains go into defense mode. The distress created by the value-action gap is no different in our brains that the distress provoked by failing a test that we studied hard for. The only difference is how our brain bridges the gap: feeling we didn’t study enough and tapping our credit card just in case we want pancakes for breakfast. Every action that creates a gap with our values leads our brain to justify its choice and rids us of the cognitive dissonance, that feeling of mental distress due to our inconsistencies.
After I put my items away in the closet, the lingering happiness from my purchase wore away in seconds. Why did what I felt was a reasonable purchase make me happy for only a few minutes? I began to regret buying the suit and regretted not looking for better options. In fact, the more I entertained this thought, the more I thought of ways in which to regain my happiness. I had searched, found and purchased, but I was back where I started. I had been running a treadmill of pleasure all afternoon, and I was exhausted. Shopping for my grad suit had been a project, not the walk in the park I thought it would be.
To me, retail therapy is counterproductive. Small, momentary highs ultimately and inevitably lead us to a hedonic treadmill. We’ve all felt it: the fleeting happiness at a restaurant after the first bite, or the sudden holiday blues once our plane lands. Yet, the beautiful people in the ads never stop smiling. A perpetual grin signaling to our brain that opening a Coca Cola bottle is opening happiness, and spraying Gucci Guilty makes us smell like Jared Leto.
The good news for our generation is that a trend towards mindfulness is among us. Consumption and consciousness are starting to go hand in hand. Thrifting clothes and shopping with cloth bags is slowly gaining popularity. Consumption, in great part, is fueled by our desire to seek happiness, which grants more importance to this change. After all, what is more important to us than our own happiness?
Brands have become a part of our lives and our identities. A brand logo study found that recognized logos trigger positive emotional responses in people, while unknown ones don’t. Our concept of happiness rests partially on the brilliant crafts of creative teams around the world. I associate Air Canada with the time I moved from Colombia, Coca Cola with family gatherings, and Disney with the nostalgia of Saturday morning cartoons. Along with all the other choices we make, it is our responsibility to choose the right brands that will represent our contributions to this change.
Realizing that happiness is just the moment before you need more happiness makes sustainability that much more difficult. We are human, and often we find ourselves torn apart in the paradox of choice, experiencing the discomfort of a value-action gap, and running on the hedonic treadmill. In such conditions, making mistakes seems almost inevitable. To that, I propose that in the face of this difficulty, we can find salvation. If we can figure out how to align our inner desires with our outward illusions, we might find that perhaps the best things in life are free.