Ever since the latter half of the 19th century, shopping has brought pleasure to peoples’ lives and has even acted as a means of relaxation. In some cases, however, the economy-boosting hobby has become rooted in people in a rather adverse manner.

I enter Saara’s* family home, a low terraced house from the ‘60s with a red brick cladding embedding the small apartment, where she lives with her parents. She leads me to her room where I am immediately confronted by a big black bin bag filled up to its rim. It is full of clothes, most of them quite untouched, many with their price tags still on. After a quick gaze around I can see that the same phenomenon is repeated all over the relatively small space. The rest of the room is literally draped in clothing, with the occasional shoe poking out from the colourful heaps of textile. Her writing desk is barely visible under the masses of labelled goods, and even the floor is carpeted with shoes and cloth. “I have more in a storage room we have rented out,” she reveals.

Saara is a 20-year old barista who regards shopping as one of her hobbies. “I love the feeling I get when I enter a shop. Time passes by amazingly quickly and I feel really happy when I’m there,” she says, leaving no uncertainty of the fact that she gets a real kick out of shopping. “Sometimes when I am in a shop or on my way to one during sales, it feels as if my only goal was to buy as much as I can.”

Ever since the mid-20th century, with the ever-widening availability of products through mass production, the regular street paddler could easily access the pleasurable world of material goods. According to a research made by Helsinki University for the Stockmann group (recently published in the book Hulluja päiviä, huikeita vuosia), the Finnish consumer society began to bud in the 1930s, to finally flower rather hedonistically in the ‘80s, when the income gap had narrowed down and people had more free time to choose what to use their ever-larger wages on.

As living standards rose, buying for necessary needs became juxtaposed with shopping, an activity that brought pleasure and worked as a means of relaxation, especially for women. It was not the grandiose objects that only the elite could traditionally afford to buy, but rather the smaller products – that we nowadays take for granted - that made the difference, such as cosmetic products and small household machinery. Consumption became a way to express independent choices, and was inherently linked to freedom.

Even today, consumption maintains its position as a way for people to express their identities and opinions. In the aftermath of his An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore urged people to vote with their wallets, and change the world through buying certain types of products. Spending has become one of the most common ways for people to define themselves. With the proliferation of quick loan options, however, increasingly more people have taken up the habit of overspending.

Today it is especially younger adults that have problems with managing their money. According to Suomen Asiakastieto, the amount of payment defaults has grown by ten per cent from last year, with 18,000 new defaults, most of them pertaining to people between the ages of 25 and 29. The amount of payment defaults is one of the few statistical data that can be correlated with the lack of control in managing money. The reasons for this lack of control may vary.

more people
have taken
up the habit of

Addicted to buying

Janne Viljamaa, a social psychologist and the author of Pakko Saada – Addiktoitunut yhteiskunta (Must Have – An Addicted Society), sees a society in which many young people live with an “I want everything right now” – mentality, whilst money is expected to flow in easily, and “dirty” jobs are a definite no-no. A portion of these people, however, suffers from something much more serious. Addiction, be it in the form of shopping addiction, gaming addiction or other type of addiction. “It is a generally accepted notion among psychologists that 20 per cent of the population suffers from negative addictions of different types, shopping addiction being one of them,” he says.

Addiction can be either chemical or functional. While chemical addiction involves dependency to substances such as alcohol, medicine and drugs, functional addiction refers dependency to activities such as shopping, sex, exercise, gambling, eating, as well dependency to notions such as power and fame. “Functional addicts are dependent on doing something excessively,” Viljamaa says. “They can be shopaholics, workaholics, jogging maniacs or dependant on food, sex. Addicts lose control. They can’t stop themselves, even though they suffer. When a functional addict enters a shop, the brain’s limbic area ­­– the so-called pleasure centre – becomes highly activated. They lose control. You can see the highly activated brain area in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).”

Where did all these shopaholics spring out from all of a sudden? According to Viljamaa genes play a great role in a person’s susceptibility on becoming addicted to something. That means that people must always have had the genes to become addicted, but then it was our environment that changed. “If the environment is appropriate, the gene ‘activates’. So even though many people may share the same gene, in the end it depends on the environment you live in,” he says, adding that shopaholics are likely to be addicted to other things as well. “For example, an athlete who is positively addicted to training aims to get to the top, and when that top is reached the athlete is likely to feel empty, and the addiction changes its form,” he says, indicating that the athlete is likely to become addicted to something else. A society where people have excess money after necessary purchases, and which lives in an environment studded with inconspicuous advertisements that even affect the subconscious, seems foreordained to develop behavioural disorders such as shopping addiction.

A multi-faceted disorder

If you’re a self-confessed shopaholic,
here are Viljamaa’s tips on how to get
rid of the habit:

• Don’t use cards, try to use cash only.
• Don’t buy anything on credit or loan.
• Before leaving the house to do any
necessary purchases, think carefully
what you really need to buy and write
them down. Don’t buy anything that’s
not on the list.
• Avoid environments where it’s easy to
spend money.
• Have people who can manage their
money well around to provide support.
• Put someone trustworthy (e.g. spouse,
parent) who manages money well in
charge of your money, who gives the
final say on whether you can make the
purchase or not. In simple terms – give
your money to someone else.
• Don’t be afraid to ask help.

Viljamaa became interested in the topic in the late ‘70s upon reading William Glasser’s book Positive Addiction, where jogging was portrayed as an example of a positive dependency. “Addiction can be either positive or negative. A person that is positively addicted is in control of the situation, whereas a negatively addicted person is not,” he says. “In the case of shopping addiction a person suffers due to the particular lifestyle. The apartment often has no more space, making the person anxious, and the more anxious the person becomes, the more she buys. It’s like throwing gasoline onto the flames!”

According to Viljamaa addiction can be separated into four different strains that are not mutually exclusive: psychological, social, physical, and habit-derived addiction.

The psychological stance views shopping as a means of filling a void within oneself. “Shopping does not only give the person a feeling of happiness, but they actually feel as if they could become whole with material goods.” Viljamaa says. “From a psychoanalytic viewpoint shopping addiction stems from a possible lack or emptiness of relations during childhood. As an adult, when the person can afford to buy goods they feel that it is a way to control things. Narcissism is also connected to this. The person feels like rising above others, becoming better than other people, while as a child they were powerless,” he says.

The social root is simpler, and also an image question. “A good example of this is a kid that smokes to show off to others. Also wanting to be seen to belong to a certain social class or group can be a powerful instigator,” he says. A similar root is that of situation-related habits. “For example one smokes always when the bus is late, or takes the family shopping every Saturday,” Viljamaa adds. Addiction can also have a physical manner of showing itself, “a person may feel anxious until she buys something to feel happy again,” Viljamaa says, adding that physical addictions cannot be easily perceived in many cases.

While looking at the sea of expensive textile I ask Saara about the proportion of clothes that actually gets used once in a while. “I would say that I use roughly two per cent of the clothes I own on a regular basis. 80 per cent of them gets used only once, at most,” she admits. “I find it very hard to leave something I like in the shop. I simply must have it. There’s no alternative,” she says.

At the moment Saara is lucky to have no debts due to her hobby, but she has no savings either. When I ask her whether she considers herself to be addicted to shopping, she answers yes, “on the one hand – since it really takes up all my money –I would like to get rid of it, but on the other hand I would not, as it really gives me so much joy and it has always been a part of my life.”

Strangely enough, she does not regret much of the shopping she has accomplished, and is not even bothered by the fact that she has to hop over mountains of clothes to get to her bed every night. “After I get back home I don’t even admire the things I’ve bought. I’m just happy that they’re mine, that I can see them in my own room,” she says; apparently content to leave things as they are.

Jenni Toriseva

*Name has been changed upon the interviewee’s request