Joy of Shopping Explained

It's the thrill of the chase for that perfect kill. It's that pivotal moment right before you say, "I'll take it." They call it "retail therapy" and "the shopper's high."

It turns out that cashmere scarf is not the source of your joy after all. It is the pursuit, and a pleasurable little brain chemical called dopamine.

"We explore a new store, we look for new items on the shelf," said Dr. Susan Bookheimer, assistant professor of the Brain Mapping Division and Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "We experience that novelty that gives us the sense of excitement, but we also anticipate a positive outcome. We anticipate getting something that we are really going to enjoy."

In order for the human species to thrive, exploration must be rewarded. So every time we go in pursuit of something new and exciting, this natural narcotic flows into the brain's primitive pleasure centers.

"It is much like adolescent behavior where we get very excited about things and we act without thinking because these areas of the brain … are involved in reward and involved in novelty seeking," Bookheimer said.

Here's the cruel twist: Dopamine levels rise in anticipation of an experience, not during the experience itself. Once you get home, the chemicals in the brain balance out, which means that logic and "buyer's remorse" take over. But hey, that's tomorrow. So enjoy the buzz today.

Keep Your Shopping Under Control

Now that you know it is you against your brain this shopping season, here are some ways to keep your shopping -- and your bills -- under control:

Buy only what's on your Christmas list.

Give yourself a little financial reality check by forgoing the credit cards and using cash or debit cards instead.

If you're looking for that shopping high without the sticker shock, there's always window shopping.

To avoid overspending, walk away from the item, sleep on it, and return the next day if you really want it.