How Destructive is Retail Therapy to Your Psyche?

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.

So how, this shopping season, to avoid hedonic decline and find the joy not only in the buying, but also in the owning? Below, a few tips for prolonging retail therapy afterglow.

1. There have been plenty of studies proving that buying experiences is more satisfying that buying things, including research from San Francisco State University professor Ryan Howell, who found that those who spent their money on experiences also tended to be more open and empathic as people. The answer, though, isn’t to quit your retail therapy cold turkey, but to weave in experiences—trips, sporting games, theater—that might provide some added meaning.

2. Resist the impulse to see something in a magazine and go straight away to buy it. Instead, let yourself think about the item for as long as you can. (This may be one key to the success of social media site Pinterest, where users can post photos to create a public sort of “wish list” of ideas, goals, and, yes, goods.)

When he was just starting out, before he had a salary that allowed him to buy the clothes he thought he should own as a rising executive, one man I met recently, Rob, would schedule monthly shopping dates with himself. His goal: To become familiar with what $5,000 could buy and recreate the look for something closer to $500. “It became a game,” he said. “I got really good at making an entire outfit look amazing with maybe one splurge, like a nice jacket or great shoes, and I’d do a ton of research before settling on what that one item would be. Or I’d look for similar styles in second hand stores.” In many ways, he said, this exercise helped teach him how to approach his career in finance in a creative way. Unlike most “money guys,” he said, he learned to express himself visually. He developed an appreciation for beauty.

Now, as CFO of a major cosmetics brand, Rob is successful enough to buy the actual designer outfits. But shopping, he said, has become less fun. “I used to get such joy out of, what, the fact I couldn’t afford to buy the ‘real’ items?” he told me. “But now that I can, and do, just go out and buy whatever I want, I don’t get the same sort of satisfaction from them.”

3. Studies show that consumers find the most lasting satisfaction when they believe their cash is being exchanged for goods of value and quality, which often means paying full price. In an April 2013 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, when subtly reminded of quality, consumers evaluated an expensive wine more favorably than a cheaper wine.

4. Recall, and participate in, the joy of buying things from a brick-and-mortar store, which prolongs the joy of shopping from an impulse buy in the half hour before you rush off to work to an afternoon spent with a friend or family member or even just yourself. Online shopping is a relatively mindless activity that, while relaxing, offers little in the way of engagement with others. Shopping in the presence of people, though, fosters a sense of connection to others, which can increase levels of happiness and satisfaction derived from the experience.

A few times a week during the renovation of her kitchen, Brooke used her lunch break to flip through home design magazines and visit stores, looking at everything from backsplash tile to new oven ranges. It would’ve been easier—and quicker—she knew, to hire an interior designer or even to shop online. But she saw the task less as an obligation than a break from the rest of her life—one that also prolonged the excitement she felt over getting a new kitchen. “The to-do list was endless, and, at first, daunting,” she told me. “But when the kitchen was finally done, I missed having that outlet, which was both physical—I needed to get out of the office and go look at things—and emotional.”

Perhaps the most crucial conclusion made in the study of hedonic decline is that more really isn’t better, and that wanting a new car is as effectual, mood-wise, as having the new car. Why not, then, hang onto the old one for a little longer? Milk the thrill of the longing? Forgetting even that debt can, and does, lead to unhappiness, remember, the next time you’re about to press “Complete My Order” or perform the in-person equivalent, that it’s not about what’s acquired, but about what’s yet a possibility. As Rob noted to me, “When I look back, what I think was most thrilling about those early days of shopping wasn’t that I was getting something for cheaper, but that I was preparing for a future, big, amazing life where I’d need to wear all these fancy clothes all the time,” he said. “It wasn’t the expensive suit I was after, but the life that accompanied it. There was nothing more powerful and uplifting than the excitement and hope of what was still to come.”

Featured image via Shutterstock

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