How Destructive is Retail Therapy to Your Psyche? Dr.Peggy Drexler

You may be surprised at what provides the electric jolt of shopping

Susan had a solution to her days spent stressed out as the head of marketing for a global tech company: Shoes. There was no problem that could truly be solved by the acquisition of a new pair of shoes—rationally, she knew this—but considering she never bought more than she could afford, she reasoned there were few problems that were made worse by them. And shoes, she told herself, simply made her happier, especially when she got to think about the pairs she was going to buy in place of the drama going on at work. The smiling cat face embroidered on the Charlotte Olympia velvet heels she planned to order for fall would instantly cheer her up; the go-with-everything nature of the multi-colored Derek Lam snakeskin sandals would make deciding what to wear to holiday dinner parties so much easier. So what if the $1,300 Balenciaga buckle-strap boots looked more uncomfortable than walking around in a pair of cement bricks? Those were shoes that commanded respect.

For Susan, even the act of going online to browse the new arrivals at her favorite online shops—brought to her attention by the e-newsletters that arrived ever-so-reliably in her inbox each morning—was thrilling. Clicking through heels and wedges and flats as she sipped her coffee, planning and plodding her purchases, was as stimulating as the coffee itself. When her box of shoes arrived in the mail, it was like Christmas morning.

But then the box was opened, the shoes were tried on, admired, and put away, and Susan was left to wonder: Now what? A few weeks, and wears, later, the shoes were still beautiful, of course, the cat face as hilarious as ever, but now that they were real, they seemed to have lost some of their draw. “I rarely regretted a purchase, but having a new pair did not make me want more pairs any less,” she told me. “They may have filled a need, but another need always opened up. And they didn’t make me any happier, not like imagining myself in them had seemed to do.”

Retail therapy has long been a tool for the stressed-out, brokenhearted, or just plain bored; some figures, including a 2012 survey by online retailer eBates, a company that deals in coupons and “cash back” shopping, put the number of Americans who go shopping to feel better at more than half. In many ways, retail therapy works. A new pair of shoes, a great dress, or a sharp, well-fitting suit can soothe the soul, provide a confidence boost that helps you land a job, or inspire creativity in a way that’s more than just imagined. According to a 2011 study out of Penn State published in Psychology & Marketing, retail therapy has real and lasting positive impacts on mood. The study, which looked at 330 participants that included shoppers at malls and Penn State students, noted that 28 percent of shoppers had purchased something to celebrate an occasion or personal victory and 62 percent to cheer themselves up. Indeed, studies show, money can buy happiness. A December 2012 study of 122 countries published in the journal Emotion found well-being rises with income at all levels of income—and that richer families, and countries, are happier than poorer ones.

But retail therapy might not work quite in the way consumers assume it works. That’s because the happiness that buying something provides is derived not from acquiring the item, or from the item itself, but from the targeting it, wanting it, and anticipating its arrival into your life. That is, the electric jolt shopping can provide is a result of the act of desiring, more than the act of fulfilling. Meaning: You’re better off if you don’t buy the outfit, or gadget, or piece of art, but simply long for it.

The evidence: In June, the Journal of Consumer Research published a study finding that when it comes to shopping, wanting things makes people happier than actually having them, even among those, like Susan, who do not experience buyer’s remorse. 

 Researchers analyzed the emotional state of consumers before and after making a significant purchase. Most, especially those who self-identified as materialists, anticipated future purchases with strong, positive emotions: They felt joy, excitement, optimism, and peacefulness when they thought of their future purchase, which they also believed would improve their relationships, boost their self-esteem, enable them to experience more pleasure, and be more efficient. (Super shoes, indeed.)

But after the purchase was made, and the anticipation faded into reality, what followed was what the researchers called “hedonic decline.” Happy feelings dissipated. Consumers were left wanting more.

Francis was an avid collector of vintage glassware and decanters, something he got into while working in a restaurant during college in San Francisco. Fifteen years later, he estimated he’d amassed more than 130 decanters and too many glasses to count—or keep in his small Brooklyn studio. But he kept buying. Like for many collectors, he told me, “It’s less about having the item than searching for it, coming across a cool and unusual piece, and scoring it,” he said. That’s because he was searching not for glassware, but for a feeling. The payoff wasn’t the find, but the finding. New decanters were admired for a short time before being packed away for storage, and Francis went off to seek his next source of momentary happiness.

But that doesn’t mean all purchases necessarily end in remorse or longing. The JCR study argues that buying is less satisfying than wanting, but not that buying makes people sad. And indeed there is an upside to the lift that wanting provides. In fact, it stands to reason that without the happiness produced from the desire for things, people like Susan and Francis—who spend considerable amounts of time thinking about future purchases—would be even less happy than they are. What’s more, although the happiness that results from acquiring an item may be short-lived, the happiness that comes from thinking about and planning for a purchase can be sustained with a small amount of effort.

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  1. Good article. I have been a bit too involved in retail therapy for the last two years, I needed the diversion from my stressful job. And it is true: researching, wondering, imagining and longing for something are all so much more diverting than actually owning an item ( which just ads to your collection, in the worst case constantly reminding you of your ‘obsession’). I got a new job now, that should be less stressful and am trying to buy less (also looking at second-hand stuff and eco, fair trade things). Buying only what you need and / or love, and knowing it came from a sustainable source, I find also increases satisfaction.