Retail Therapy Is Real: How Shopping Can Actually Make Us Feel Happier


I’ve written a lot of pieces on love and heartbreak. I think it’s no secret that I barely made it out alive after having my heart broken, but the important thing is that I did.

I have to credit my survival to three things getting me through that dark place in my life: Writing my heart out, good friends, and stuff. Shiny stuff.

My recovery process was as follows: I would sulk in my room, then drag myself to the phone to make plans with those amazing friends who put up with my rants about malicious men.

But eventually they grew tired of my ramblings, and I needed another outlet. Cue shopping.

I’d leave my house with an unforgiving frown on my face. Deference made me realize that I needed to sweat out my feelings, so to speak, if I had any hope of eliminating the toxins in them. (I mean, I had to sweat them out figuratively, not literally.)

Sure, working out was an option, but I needed something more than just short-lived endorphins and a journey to a six-pack.

So I’d skip right on down to the stores. And with every new shade of lipstick and bra-and-panty set I purchased, I felt my damaged spirit slowly make its way back to life.

I know this sounds vapid, girly and what-have-you, but it wasn’t so much about the individual stuff that made me feel more whole; It was about the meaning behind the stuff.

I felt like I was reinventing myself into a newer, stronger person -- one not just with more impressive clothes, but one with a much more impressive tenacity. Shopping became my way of getting high.

If I could count the number of times I bought a pair of shoes every time something didn’t go my way romantically, I’d be out of fingers and toes. And excuses.

Retail therapy, my friends, is tried, true and effective; it is not a myth.

Ok, so shopping can elevate our moods. But why exactly does it do that?

It makes us feel in control of our immediate environments.

A University of Michigan study investigated the theory that shopping makes people feel like they’ve gained back the control they’ve lost elsewhere in their lives.

The numbers show that those who ended up actually spending money were 40 times more likely to feel restored control -- and felt three times happier in general -- than those who ended up only window-browsing.

Yeah, this definitely explains why I reach for the itty-bitty lingerie pieces when my love life has spun out of control.

The researchers of the study believe that, though distress-motivated shopping often has a bad rap, it’s been proven to reduce sadness, and has unfairly been viewed in a bad light.

We're only happy when we buy things that don’t remind us of what made us upset in the first place.

This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by why people are buying what they’re buying. According to Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Kellogg School of Management, there are two different types of purchases.

“In-domain compensatory consumption” refers to items we believe will make up for the faults that initially got us in hot water, while “across domain” purchases are not related to what upset us, and are within our budgets.

In other words, if someone puts us down for a type of shirt we wore, we’re more likely to feel rewarded by buying a new treadmill in response -- as opposed to getting another type of shirt.

Susan Adams of Forbes sums up the results from Rucker’s experiments:

“…the subjects who had written about feeling incompetent and then chose one of the intelligence-enhancing products reported that those products reminded them of how incompetent they felt.”

If you’re going to go out and buy something, just make sure it has no direct relation to the thing that triggered your angst.

It makes us tap into our most creative selves.

Dr. Kit Yarrow conducted an unofficial experiment in which she observed consumers’ reactions to purchases.

Upon looking at a pricey watch his wife bought him as a birthday gift, 60-year-old Jim was taken aback by the watch's artful particulars.

Yarrow writes, “Some think that owning a luxury item is about status, but for many it’s more an appreciation of craftsmanship and design that enlivens the senses.”

When we buy things for ourselves and receive things from others, we’re really being more “right-brained” than we think we’re being.

But, just like everything else in life, it should only be done in moderation.

Retail therapy is one of those things that only works when you make the choice to do it here and there: That is, in order to avoid “shopper’s guilt,” we should try to avoid running to the stores every time we need a quick fix.

To fully enjoy the benefits that accompany shopping when we’re down, we’ve got to be smart about prescribing it as the medicine for our melancholy.

If you shop every single time you’ve entered a pitfall, you might want to consider finding other ways to release your dissatisfaction. My advice? Don’t shop until you drop. Shop until you can’t afford any more.

At least, for me, those two are definitely not one and the same.