Strengthening Your Will 11/12

Strengthening Your Will 11/12
Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

November 2012

A new Costco store opened recently near where I live. I heard it was coming and anticipated its arrival, even though I had a membership many years ago and relinquished it – due, in part, to location.

I conveniently forgot that Costco is a wholesaler. That means large packages. Isn’t it ironic that we chose to renew the membership when our children no longer live with us? That means most items are just too much for the two of us. But of course Costco sells much more than food. You can buy almost anything you need – even things you don’t.

Oddly, I find myself searching for a reason to go. They have great products and great prices. Who doesn’t love to save money? Hmmm. . . . If we love saving money so much perhaps we should stay home. I think what we really love is spending money.

Think about what Costco does to encourage us to hand over our wallets blinded by the halo effect of great deals. The no frills, humongous, concrete warehouse packed to the rafters screams “BUY A LOT! BUY IT NOW!” Fill that giant-sized cart because the deals are that good.

“Do these jeans make my bum look big? Who cares? They’re only 19 bucks!” Buy them now; return them later. Why would Costco provide change rooms for trying on clothes? That would only slow the decision-making process and the bargain frenzy.

To understand how temptation takes over us, it helps to understand the role of a chemical messenger in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine regulates a number of functions. Dopamine deficiency and excess results in a variety of conditions including Parkinson’s Disease, AD/HD, and drug addiction.

When we look at the brain as it relates to Costco, we’re talking specifically about the pleasure and reward system. Let’s be clear. Dopamine’s primary function is to make us want to pursue happiness, versus actually make us happy. Big distinction.

Food, sex, and certain abused drugs stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain. The urge to eat, and that other urge are likely wired into us to ensure the longevity of our species. But are we thinking about our species when we reach out for food or . . . ?

Dopamine helps us to take action to move toward rewards. This is often good and necessary, but it can also be a huge threat to our self-control. And temptations are everywhere. Costco-sized carrot cake anyone?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Willpower Instinct, wisely asserts that we need to distinguish wanting from happiness. If we are to have self-control, we need to separate the real rewards that give our lives meaning from the false rewards that keep us distracted and addicted.

If the thought of a carton of ice cream is extremely exciting to you, but the reality of having eaten it feels much different, you understand exactly what she’s talking about. We can be tricked into the pursuit of happiness from things that don’t deliver, when we don’t know what is going on in the brain with the pleasure and reward system. We believe ice cream makes us happy, and it does – for a few minutes. My clients affirm that the negative feelings and consequences last much longer.

According to McGonigal, research has confirmed what I’ve always believed. “People who practice mindful eating develop greater self-control around food and have fewer episodes of binge-eating.” She also says, “When we free ourselves from the false promise of reward, we often find that the thing we were seeking happiness from was the main source of our misery.” I knew that too, and so did you.

Pay close attention to false rewards from things like: food, shopping, lotteries and gambling, the internet (the most widespread addiction of all) and you are much closer to being free from the spell. 

Mindfulness, which you can learn by practicing deep breathing and meditation, is one of the best antidotes to impulsivity. Creating even a tiny space that allows you to respond versus react will help you save your money and maybe your health.

Here are a few other suggestions, compiled with the help of Kelly McGonigal’s book, to help you mitigate the damage from your bargain brain.

Strengthening your will at Costco and beyond:
• Pause and Plan. Talk to yourself before you go about why you’re going and what you will buy or not buy. According to McGonigal, when dopamine puts your brain on a reward-seeking mission, you become the most risk-taking, impulsive and out-of-control version of yourself.
• Don’t shop when you’re tired, hungry or stressed. Rather limiting, isn’t it? Any of these conditions can shift your brain into a reward-seeking state.
• Consider if the purchase will make you happy, if that’s what you think it will do. Are you satisfying the desire or just easing the anxiety of the desire by making the purchase?
• Steer away from free food samples, which trigger and combine two of the biggest promises of reward, that being: Free and Food. Apparently, eating something sweet makes you more likely to purchase indulgent foods and sale items.
• For most people, self-control is better in the morning and wanes throughout the day. Plan your shopping accordingly.

Now that I’ve gone around the block with you on this whole Costco/dopamine thing I feel less enchanted by the spell. How about you?

Gee, thanks for listening.


  1. Tess Gleason 11 years ago

    Thank you for your commentary on this subject, and I agree that purchasing something is usually pleasing to us on many levels. Consumerism has become the “foraging” that we used to need to do and a good deal for a big purchase has become the “kill”. We overeat because it’s far too easy. We go to a grocery store, all the food is in once place, we go home and eat it, theres no work on our part (we already “worked” to pay for it) and when we want a reward it’s probably going to be food.

    So what is the solution? Or is there one? Understanding the why and that we don’t need to chase down dinner when sports, especially team sports that have taken over that need. Can we tame the urges that seem to almost be part of our genetics? Can we reason this disconnect that maybe we are out pacing our genetic to adapt? Can we save ourselves from our over indulgence?

    I’d like to think we are smarter than our monkey cousins but when it comes to over stimulation (food, sex, and drugs) we appear to be losing the battle. I have no answers but truly wish the solution was as easy as this.

    – Tess

  2. Author

    Well said,Tess! You make an interesting connection regarding consumerism replacing foraging for food.
    I think we’re smarter than our monkey cousins, but we’re operating unconsciously much of the time.

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