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Retail Therapy: The Science Behind Treating Yourself To Happiness

Author: Katherine Chen

Editors: Misha Wichita and Kayla Otoo

Artist: Chiara Chen  

              Have you ever had a bad day and all that you looked forward to afterward was treating yourself to something good? This motive to cheer yourself up through purchases is coined as “retail therapy” and typically happens when you are down or particularly stressed about something. Studies have found that more than half of Americans engage in some form of retail therapy. It has been found that retail therapy, as a type of coping mechanism, can uplift your mood. 

         Shopping works to stimulate our senses; when we see bright, vibrant displays and an ideal sensory experience, it can distract us from the draining reality. Online shopping does this especially well in that its products are edited in a way meant to lure in customers, which all works to distract from your negative emotions. Furthermore, when we buy something that someone else has, we can sometimes feel as if we can project or manifest ourselves into the desired environment and situation. This sensory stimulation allows us to imagine vivid images with positive outcomes. 

        Even browsing online or window shopping by itself can help make you feel better. The anticipation of a possible reward releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with feeling pleasure. Dopamine makes you want to continue seeking this source of pleasure, which is why people fall back on retail therapy as a way to cope with disappointing realities. Online shopping stimulates the release of more dopamine because you anticipate and eagerly wait for your package to arrive on your front steps. It is not even necessary to purchase the items because you have already gone through that thrilling scenario in your head. In that way, it is entirely low stakes, as you can abandon the shopping cart full of unpurchased items yet leave satisfied. 

            A 2014 study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology revealed that retail therapy provides immediate gratifications and increases happiness. It had a role in diminishing sadness as its happy effect lingers for quite some time. Sadness is often linked to believing in this external locus of control where individuals are caught in the thought process that their life is controlled by external factors such as luck and fate rather than the idea that they control their outcomes. Shopping has been found to restore that sense of control in customer’s lives. A 2014 study from the University of Michigan found that purchasing what you want can be 40 times more effective at producing that sense of control. Making choices such as where to shop and what to buy are something that you have control over. When life events go south, getting what you want in this regard can feel like a positive achievement despite your reality. 

         Healthy retail therapy cannot make you feel worse about your current situation. Although most retail therapy is done spontaneously, there is no buyer’s remorse, regret, or anxiety after making a purchase. This applies even when your satisfaction with your new purchase diminishes over time. People tend to stay within their budget when shopping to make themselves happier and not regret purchases post-retail therapy.         

           Yet there is a catch: findings have revealed that retail therapy does not work on stronger emotions such as anger and more chronic negative feelings like loneliness. It works with sadness because we could, in most of those cases, work to change the outcomes. However, it does not work with anger because other people are involved in your predicament, contributing to your negative feelings. You may try to control that environment, but still, you hold no control over what the other party may be doing. While shopping does help mitigate your negative emotions, it does not address the root of these stronger, negative feelings. Additionally, too much retail therapy could tip the balance and would be problematic for your bank account as well as negating the previous happiness you had. Nevertheless, retail therapy can hold a lot of therapeutic value when practiced in moderation. So, the next time you are feeling unhappy, know that it is okay to take a break and reward yourself. 

 

Citations:

“Why Retail ‘Therapy’ Makes You Feel Happier.” Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, 20 Jan.

Tan, Sharlene. “Is Retail Therapy For Real?” WebMD, WebMD, 10 Sept. 2021,

Danziger, Pamela N. “Why Retail Therapy Is So Therapeutic.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15

May 2023, www.forbes.com/sites/pamdanziger/2023/05/15/why-retail-therapy-is-so-

therapeutic/?sh=2a9bcd116911. 

“Your Brain on Retail Therapy.” Youtube, uploaded by SciShow Psych, 24 June 2021,

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