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The Loneliness of Black Friday

Why do we shop? And what does it mean today?
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If you didn't spend the past week leading up to Black Friday in a tent strategically positioned near the entrance of your local Best Buy, perhaps you've seen the following J.C. Penney advertisement on television: a mother and daughter clean up the dishes after what looks to have been a perfectly splendid Thanksgiving dinner. A half-devoured turkey and other leftovers rest on an island table in the kitchen. Everything seems rather plain, except for the presence of cheery carolers dressed in festive red sweaters, singing a revised version of "Deck the Halls," which, among other changes, replaces the familiar Fa la la la la refrain with Go go go go go shop shop shop shop. Upon hearing this, the mother-daughter combo stop what they're doing and leave the room, presumably to cruise the aisles of J.C. Penney stocking up on jackets and pants at 60 percent off.

It's not a spectacular ad, nor even noteworthy. Its primary purpose is to let viewers know that J.C. Penney would open its doors at 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, a reported 10 hours earlier than last year. Indeed, plenty of big-name retailers, such as Target, Macy's, and Kohl's, are launching their holiday shopping season sooner than the last time around, carving deeper into time typically set aside for digesting mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie on the couch with loved ones.

This trend, however, shouldn't surprise anyone. Shopping is a great American pastime. With each passing year, Black Friday and its younger cousin, Cyber Monday, further engrave their spot on the tablet of U.S. tradition, right alongside the Oscars and Super Bowl Sunday. Heck, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush didn't encourage members of the public to enter a period of austerity and sacrifice; he told them to visit Disney World and continue buying stuff.

So, besides for the occasional death or injury associated with Black Friday's door-busting sales and save-by-spending mentality, what else might this annual celebration of purchasing things be doing to the national spirit?

One study that appeared online last summer and is set for publication in the December of 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests a strong correlation between materialism and loneliness. By monitoring more than 2,500 consumers over a six-year period, Professor Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in the Netherlands found that while some people were trapped on the hamster wheel of buying because they feel lonely and feeling lonely because they buy, not all materialistic behavior is the same.

For his study, Pieters categorized consumers into three subtypes: (1) those who shop because they take pleasure in the activity of acquiring things; (2) those who shop because they desire status symbols to broadcast their success and elevate themselves above the herd; and (3) those who shop because they hope material things will both provide personal fulfillment and alleviate existential despair. Terms used to describe the corresponding drives to buy are mirth, measure, and medicine, respectively. Interestingly, Pieters concludes his study by stating that while the cycle of materialism and loneliness primarily resides in the latter two subtypes, the first subtype actually leads to a decrease in loneliness:

Valuing material possessions as a measure of success and as a medicine for happiness were associated with increases in loneliness over time, and loneliness in its turn was associated with increases in these subtypes of materialism. Jointly, this forms the vicious side of the materialism-loneliness cycle, which perpetuates once it is formed. In contrast, valuing possessions as a source of material mirth in life was associated with decreases in loneliness over time, and loneliness was unrelated to the growth in this subtype of materialism.

Pieters's study, titled "Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just a Vicious Cycle," also found that single people were more likely to purchase items for medicine, whereas men tended to buy for both medicine and measure, and women shopped for mirth.

So, what does all this mean for the relationship between the event that kicks off the year's biggest shopping season and the country's apparent decline in mental health? Us moderns, after all, are becoming more socially isolated than ever before, with report after report after report pointing to an increasing rate of loneliness. A 2010 survey of Americans aged 45 and older, for example, found that 40 percent of them are lonely, a figure that's doubled since the 1980s.

"A lot of evidence has shown that materialistic people tend to have weaker social ties and are not as socially integrated as less materialistic people," says James E. Burroughs, a professor of commerce at the University of Virginia and an associate editor at the Journal of Consumer Research. "What Pieters did is take this a step further by showing how it contributes to loneliness—a loneliness that reinforces this problem and drives people toward material objects because they're easier to deal with than trying to restructure one's life to bring meaningful relationships into it."

In other words, while a new blender or widescreen TV might temporarily distract one from his or her social isolation, a product won't vanquish that feeling entirely.

"Materialistic people tend to think that things should just work, and they're very immediate-oriented," adds Burroughs. "Yet social relationships are difficult, long-term, and laborious. Even a very healthy social relationship requires a lot of work."

Now, it certainly would be wrong to blame Black Friday hype alone for this growing sense of alienation. Above and beyond a Melissa McCarthy ad encouraging folks to head on down to Old Navy Thanksgiving evening for a chance to win $1,000,000, many complex factors contribute to making the culture what it is.

Then again, it would also be wrong to argue that the earlier store openings, numerous campaigns and deals, and overall amplification of materialism play no role in making the culture what it is, either. Do an estimated 97 million people—nearly a third of the country's entire population—really descend on malls and visit websites on Black Friday to shop because they find the experience mirthful? While some might enjoy the cutthroat competitive-sport aspect, the rest presumably do it for the last two subtypes outlined in Pieters' study.

There's also the savings, which some experts consider illusionary, but savings themselves don't necessary alter the impetus behind wanting more products; it just makes those products more affordable.

Even though a pair of fancy sneakers is not known to cast judgment or betray, in the end it's people, not things that bring deep-seated happiness and fulfillment.