You've probably felt the rush of shopping – treating yourself with something new or finding a bargain often gives a sort of gratification that's not easy to find somewhere else.
As Sophie Kinsella wrote in her sensational book “Confessions of a Shopaholic“: “That moment. That instant when your fingers curl around the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag—and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realizing it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.”
Shopping gives us this amazing rush of positive feelings, but have you ever come to think of why that happens? Scientists and psychologists have taken it on themselves to find the reason behind the shopping thrill.
Retail therapy might help to deal with sadness? Research is controversial
Retail therapy itself is nothing new – the term is mostly used ironically, after having surfaced in the 1980s. Mostly, it has been connected to various problems, starting from real shopping addiction and ending with debt that has arisen from the shopping habit. As shopping provides instant gratification which is short-lived, various studies have come to the conclusion that there's really nothing good about retail therapy.
Retail therapy has been compared to binging on comfort food – it's a means to comfort one during stressful times, providing quick “happiness fixes”.
Researchers at Melbourne University have even gone so far as to have retail therapy classified as a psychological disorder such as compulsive shopping disorder.
Various other studies refer to the negative sides of retail therapy, but what about the good? Is retail therapy really as dark as its portrayed to be?
While there's enough evidence to make anyone believe that the habit of shopping is “evil”, there's another side to it. Research by the University of Michigan claims that shopping can, in fact, reduce sadness because it helps to restore control over your life. Sadness itself is often very strongly related to feeling powerless or lacking any control in your life, so shopping can help to balance the scales and give you back the feeling of control.
Though lack of control might not be the source of sadness for all people, there are other studies that showcase the lighter side of shopping. A 2011 study “Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood” claims that self-treating can be strategically motivated.
In other words, it's possible to direct the positive influence of shopping in a productive way, contrarily to the claims of retail therapy leading to addiction and deep psychological issues. The study believes that people who sometimes indulge in shopping can also restrain themselves but all-in-all these little indulgences help to improve mood permanently.
Even just thinking of shopping might improve the mood
Mainly, financial issues have been credited to shopping. When the habit of shopping becomes something of a binge-session that tries to mindlessly satisfy one's need for happiness, it's easy to see how it might get out of hand as the credit card is swiped all too often, leading to credit card debt and even more serious stress.
A 2013 paper “When Wanting Is Better than Having” found that sometimes, just wanting something makes you happier than actually owning the item. The study researched the emotional state of shoppers before and after shopping and found that even just the anticipation of shopping filled them with positive emotions like optimism, joy and excitement. It brought them confidence and hope since they imagined how the future purchase might enhance their life.
So perhaps the happiness fix could be received just by scrolling through online stores, without ever buying anything? Perhaps. The research confirms that even if the act of purchasing doesn't give a long-lasting effect and the positive feelings scatter away once the purchase is made, the positive emotions arisen from anticipation are permanent.
Why does shopping make you feel better?
The research sure is controversial. As much as there are those who are pro-shopping, there are those who believe retail therapy is the spawn of all problems. There's no clear answer, especially since emotions are not so one-sided. What might work for some, might not work for others.
However, there are some possible reasons why shopping can have a certain beneficial effect:
It gives you a feeling of control
As mentioned above, one of the reasons why shopping makes you so much happier is the way how it helps to restore control.
Imagine having a tough situation at work, your boss yelling at you or losing a deal because of reasons that weren't related to your actions. It can make you feel completely powerless which, clearly, causes stress, anger and sadness.
When shopping, however, the store is your playing ground. You can just snap your fingers and have store assistants bringing you anything you need. Even if this feeling of control might not solve other issues, it might help your emotional balance and give you back your self-esteem.
It helps to solve a problem
What happens when we have a problem in our lives? It creates stress and various negative emotions while we're dealing with the problem. We'll constantly try to find solutions but every time the solution fails, it creates more stress.
When shopping, you're essentially solving tiny problems. You can't charge your phone on the go? You might want to buy a power bank. Your shoes are hurting your feet? You might want to buy more comfortable shoes. Your skin is too dry? A moisturizer might help.
Even if you aren't solving the world's biggest problems during shopping, you're giving yourself back the self-belief. When you can solve these tiny problems, you can surely solve bigger ones too, right? Having solved a problem, even a small one, will help you feel more relaxed and thus, happier.
Though true empowerment lies within you, treating yourself with something you've long wished for can make you feel empowered. Imagine buying the power pumps you saw a few weeks earlier and wearing those pumps to an important meeting. You'll feel like million bucks, that's for sure! Treating yourself once in a while can bring a bit of empowerment that will benefit you in other aspects of life as well.
It gives hope
When we're looking to buy something, we're imagining the future and what we'll feel like after we've acquired that item.
For example, when you're shopping for shoes and scrolling through images online, you'll imagine yourself wearing them and how you'll feel about yourself while wearing the shoes. This gives you more hope for the future as you're anticipating good things happening. Hopelessness is often one of the sole reasons behind sadness, so if you can give yourself hopeful thoughts even just a little bit, it can help to cast away the shadows.
Sometimes, we're stressed or sad because of our tired routine. It can feel as if you're stuck in the same rhythm day after day, without anything changing.
Shopping, however, gives you a certain refreshment since it puts you in a new environment where everyday troubles are not important. This freshness can translate to your life in general since after shopping you'll feel more motivated to get back to your routine. Breaking the routine always helps to improve your mood and shopping might be one of the ways how to achieve that.
Can money buy happiness? Not entirely but perhaps just a bit. It's not a replacement for happiness, but sometimes, shopping might improve your mood just a little bit, especially if you can control your shopping habit and not have it evolve into binge-shopping.