Gift giving is great. Gift getting is pretty cool, too. But somewhere along the way our generosity mutated into a form of angst-fuelled consumer excess. Black Friday, perhaps, marks the high point of that excess.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the US, follows the third Thursday in November, and generally signals the start of the Christmas shopping season. Retailers use Black Friday to stimulate a consumer frenzy, offering promotions galore and extended opening hours.
Black Friday has become the US retail sector’s busiest day, bar none. Black Friday brings out more shoppers than any other day of the year, while also seemingly bringing the worst out in them too.
The origins of the term Black Friday are debated; some say it relates to the smog associated with the extra congestion on the roads that day. Others claim it refers to retailers shifting out of the red (loss) into the black (profit). However, the black designation might soon come to be viewed as representing the dark mood that appears to take hold of many shoppers on the day in question.
In recent years, Black Friday has become associated with consumer misbehaviour of the worst possible kind, from aggravated assaults, to cold-blooded homicides. Black Friday 2013, generated numerous reports of retail-related stampedes, stabbings and shootings. Some concerned citizens have even set up a website (blackfridaydeathcount.com). The tally is based on media reports and the toll presently stands at 7 dead and 90 injured.
Fast-forward to January, the holiday season is fading, and looming on the horizon is Blue Monday, which is supposedly, the most miserable day of the year.
The idea of Blue Monday is traced back to a publicity campaign initiated by Sky Travel, a defunct TV station. As part of the campaign the organisation enlisted the services of Dr Cliff Arnall, a psychologist, and tasked him with devising a formula aimed at predicting the UK’s most unhappy day of the year.
Based on a rather cryptic formula and what has been derided by some as “bad science”, and factoring in things like the weather and levels of consumer debt, Blue Monday is generally predicted to fall on the Monday of the last full week in January. This year that date will be January 20, although some observers have suggested that it should have been two weeks earlier (Jan 6).
Either way the idea doesn’t work at all in the UAE context, where, for one thing, Monday isn’t the start of the week, and, for another, the January weather tends to be more temperate. In reality, Blue Monday is a myth, no more than a gimmick concocted by a travel company to encourage Britons to book more holidays.
However, one aspect of the concept that is pretty sound is the notion that indebtedness is a major contributor to unhappiness. In fact, numerous research studies have shown that financial debt is a risk factor for suicide. And suicide is the ultimate behavioural indicator of misery.
Initiatives like Black Friday encourage overconsumption, which contribute greatly to the spike we see in consumer debt around January. I would go so far as to say that Black Fridays cause Blue Mondays.
Of course, we should all be more responsible, and we should think before we spend. Just like we shouldn’t drive too fast and we shouldn’t overeat and smoke. But sometimes we need reminders, encouragement and support. Black Friday only encourages us to shop excessively, and for some, that means running up debts they will live to lament.
In the same way that cigarette packets in some nations carry warnings about the health problems associated with smoking, perhaps credit cards and other similar “financial services” should carry warnings about the psychological harm associated with debt. Perhaps even our health education programmes might include a focus on debt avoidance, and healthy consumerism.
If you happen to be feeling the post-festive season blues, the last thing you should do is indulge in “retail therapy” (or a holiday you can’t afford). The very idea seems reminiscent of the alcoholic who swears the best cure for a hangover is to drink more. Such behaviour simply perpetuates endless cycles of mindless consumerism. Even if debt isn’t an issue, we would still benefit from finding healthier, and more meaningful activities than shopping.
Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States
On Twitter: @Jaytee156