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Why Retail “Therapy” Makes You Feel Happier

The brain-based effects of shopping and knowing the signs of a problem

retail therapy by shopping online

When we say we need a little retail therapy, just about everyone can relate to the sheer joy that buying a little something for yourself brings.

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But does shopping really help us feel better?

Yes, in fact it does, says clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. “Research suggests there’s actually a lot of psychological and therapeutic value when you’re shopping — if done in moderation, of course,” he says.

“Whether you’re adding items to your shopping cart online or visiting your favorite boutique for a few hours, you do get a psychological and emotional boost.” he adds. “Even window shopping or online browsing can bring brain-fueled happiness. But again, you want to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand.”

According to Dr. Bea, there are many reasons why.

Shopping restores a sense of control

Research has shown that making shopping decisions can help reinforce a sense of personal control over our environment. It can also ease feelings of sadness.

A 2014 study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that retail therapy not only makes people happier immediately, but it can also fight lingering sadness.

According to the study, sadness is generally associated with a sense that situations are in control of the outcomes in our life, rather than life being in our own hands. The choices and outcomes inherent in the act of shopping can restore a feeling of personal control and autonomy. This is true for residual sadness we may be feeling as well.

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Another 2014 study by University of Michigan showed that purchasing things you personally enjoy can be up to 40 times more effective at giving you a sense of control than not shopping. In this study, those who actually purchased items were also three times less sad, when compared to those who only browsed.

“The study suggests that when you’re feeling as if things aren’t going your way, getting exactly what you want can feel like a positive personal achievement,” Dr. Bea says.

Visualization distracts us from anxiety

Shopping also stimulates the senses.

“The smell of something new, the bright lights and colorful displays combine to create an imaginative, sensory experience that can remove us from our own reality, even for a little while,” Dr. Bea says. “This translates online, too — those perfectly merchandized, personally curated online products can get our imagination going as we project ourselves in satisfying environments.”

“Shopping and its sensory stimulation gets us to visualize positive outcomes,” Dr. Bea says. “Athletes, for example, have also found that this type of visualization can create positive anticipation and can reduce anxiety.”

Dopamine is released even before a purchase is made

As Dr. Bea points out, just browsing, scrolling or window shopping (but not buying something) can positively impact your mood. It’s this simple anticipation of the eventual possibility of a reward or treat that releases dopamine — the hormone neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel good.

Dopamine increases your desire to continue to seek out things that make you feel good (hence retail therapy being a favorite go-to!)

“Some think the dopamine is released when you actually get a reward or purchase an item, but it begins before you make a purchase as you’re delighting in all the possibilities,” he says. “It’s about the whole journey.”

Mood benefits from online shopping

Dr. Bea gives a great example of release of dopamine earlier in the shopping journey. “Ever fill up an online cart but abandon it because you already feel relatively satisfied? It’s that,” he says.

You don’t always need to purchase something to feel delight, because you’ve gone through an exciting mental journey already, he adds. In that regard there’s relatively low hazard. Spending less money may be even more rewarding.

Online shopping can also ignite dopamine release in another way — waiting for your package to arrive. Think about retail subscriptions where you may not know exactly what’s being delivered in the box. The unpredictability increases your anticipation. And since the reward is unpredictable, you experience dopamine-fueled excitement.

The psychological perks of saving up

If you’re a fan of retail therapy, there’s another route to consider. It can also be psychologically therapeutic if you save up for that reward rather than buying something immediately with a credit card.

Applying the theory of anticipation, saving up for your reward gives you something to look forward to, which creates excitement and a release of dopamine over time.

When shopping becomes a problem

Of course, you want to ensure you’re not taking shopping to an extreme. For some, shopping can become a problem. For many, it can become an addiction.

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Shopping shifts from being therapeutic to a problematic compulsive behavior when it becomes a go-to way of dealing with anxiety, stress or loss and when it’s hard to control, Dr. Bea says.

Shopping addiction goes by many other names such as oniomania, compulsive buying disorder (CBD), buying-shopping disorder (BSD) and pathological buying. It is estimated about 5% of American consumers exhibit compulsive buying behavior. Compulsive buying has significantly risen in developed economies and through the evolution of online shopping.

“Compulsive shoppers have frequent buying episodes or overpowering urges to purchase items,” Dr. Bea says. “This behavior is linked to feelings of worthlessness in addition to a lack of power.”

This condition has a lot in common with other impulse control disorders like sex addiction and gambling addiction, he adds. There is also similarity between compulsive shopping urges and the high that’s sought after in drug or alcohol addiction. Compulsive shoppers may also experience blackout episodes similar to alcohol-related blackouts, in which the buyer does not recall making purchases.

Signs of a shopaholic

Pay attention if you feel your spending is out of control. Signs of a shopping compulsion include:

  • Preoccupation with and difficulty resisting buying unneeded items.
  • Spending a lot of time doing research on items that may or not be needed.
  • Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping.
  • Problems at work, school or home because of spending that’s gotten out of control.

Therapy and support groups can help if you think you may have a problem, Dr. Bea says — as well as education.

“Shopaholics will benefit most from learning what has led to their behavior,” he says. “Cutting up your credit cards isn’t going to do it. The focus should be on exploring the underlying causes, paired with the right kind of therapy.”

The bottom line is that although behaviors that create excitement can bring us happiness, moderation is the difference between happiness and compulsiveness.

“If you’re concerned about developing a compulsive shopping behavior, try to convert your goal of control to the excitement of a new, positive behavior — like working out or eating healthy,” Dr. Bea suggests. “You’ll be surprised at how happy you can feel working towards those positive results, too.”

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