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Why "Retail Therapy" Works

Five therapeutic benefits of shopping — and how to spot a habit gone awry.

Remember that saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping?" Turns out there’s some truth to that adage.

A new study, conducted by TNS Global on behalf of, has found that more than half of Americans admit to engaging in “retail therapy.” This echoes a previous study published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing. Researchers Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy found that 62 percent of shoppers had purchased something to cheer themselves up, and another 28 percent had purchased as a form of celebration.

While “therapy” isn’t quite the word I’d use to describe the positive effects of shopping, there are indeed psychological rewards. How else to explain the immense popularity of shopping?

Here are five therapeutic benefits of shopping and how to spot a shopping habit gone awry.

Easing Transitions

Janice was in a marriage devoid of intimacy for over a decade. When she finally divorced, the first thing she did was to buy all new bedding: “It was like I was possessed. I spent hours shopping for just the right thing, and I finally bought the most beautiful duvet, shams, the works. It did feel therapeutic — like I was shedding that old marriage and ready to start fresh.”

As part of a research project, I visited the home of Andre, a 39-year-old, single, tech entrepreneur and was surprised to see he’d included a space for long dresses in his newly built custom closet. When I asked him about it, Andre said that he was “dating around” and hoped to get married soon. In perhaps an “if I build it, she will come” state of mind, Andre included what he thought were things his yet-to-be-identified future wife would want. “I assume she’ll need someplace to hang her dresses,” he said.

Shopping can be a rich source of mental preparation. As people shop, they’re naturally visualizing how they’ll use the products they’re considering, and in doing so, they’re also visualizing their new life. And, as many great athletes will attest, visualization is a performance booster and anxiety reducer.

It’s no wonder, then, that two of the most shop-intensive times of our lives are also two of life’s greatest transitions: getting married and having a baby. The purchases themselves are only part of the allure; shopping — and visualizing — is preparation, and it makes people feel more in control and less anxious about these big transitions. Which explains why sometimes the amount of shopping outweighs the actual needs.

Sara Levin is a psychologist specializing in child development and a therapist to what she describes as "excited but overwhelmed" young parents. She’s launching a subscription box service, Zero to Wonder. Monthly boxes will feature products selected to match a particular child’s age and developmental needs. According to Levin, “some types of purchasing can serve a higher purpose. Retail purchases can be helpful if the product inspires self-confidence and a sense of mastery.”

Whether it’s shopping for dorm equipment with your teenager or buying a special outfit to wear on vacation, whether they’re aware of it or not, nearly everyone has used shopping as a way to anticipate, imagine, and mentally prepare.

Dressing for Success

When Annie moved from her small rural hometown to Boston for a new job, she admits she went overboard shopping for new clothes: “Everyone looked better than me, I had to get new stuff. I know I should be judged by just my work, but I really felt so much better when I’d come in with a great outfit. It’s probably wrong that I wasn’t confident without getting new clothes, but it was true, and it still is something I think is important.”

What’s unusual isn’t that Annie purchased new clothing for her new job, city, and lifestyle — it's that she seemed to feel guilty about it. Who among us hasn’t purchased something for a special date, a new job, or a big event?

Turns out, it works. In a study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants were asked to wear white coats that they were told were doctor’s coats. When wearing these coats, students were far more accurate on a test of attentional focus and concentration (traits associated with physicians) than the control group who simply wore their street clothes for the experiment.

On the flip side, we actually can judge a book by its cover — or, in this case, a person by their shoes. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality showed that participants were able to guess a person's age, gender, income, and agreeableness from photos of their shoes.

The Pleasure Boost of Creativity and Aesthetics

Jules, a young administrative assistant, prides herself on her taste: “I love decorating and styling outfits. The texture and colors. I can think of just the right thing to tie it together. It’s so fun.” Jules enjoys shopping for creative inspiration. She says she visits shops at least once a week: “It’s just fun to see what’s new, and it gives me ideas.”

Over the years, I’ve asked many consumers to describe products they love, and the responses have often struck me as similar to how someone might describe a piece of artwork. Jim, a 60-year-old businessman, showed me a birthday gift from his wife: an expensive Panerai watch that he’d craved for years. He made sure I noticed every detail, including the suppleness of the strap. He was clearly enraptured by the beauty and functionality of the watch. Some think that owning a luxury item is about status, but for many it’s more an appreciation of craftsmanship and design that enlivens the senses.

Jules’s shopping excursions serve a similar purpose. They enrich her life through creative expression and an appreciation of beauty and design. Judging by the monumental success of product pins on Pinterest, Jules isn’t the only person inspired by the visual feast of retail.

Relaxation and Escape

When people think of the benefits of “retail therapy,” escape, entertainment, and rejuvenation are usually at the top of the list.

In my most recent consumer interviews, online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini-mental vacation. It makes sense. Unless purchasing is involved, it’s a relatively mindless, relaxing activity.

As a bonus, when faced with a difficult decision or arduous task, short breaks can actually improve performance and decision making. Studies show that our unconscious mind continues to work out problems while we’re engaged in a different activity (this shouldn’t be confused with multi-tasking, as doing several things at once results in not focusing on anything deeply).

Christina, a senior human relations professional, says she shopped for light fixtures nearly every day for a couple of weeks during breaks from her job: “I’d just scroll and scroll. I kind of missed it when I finally bought one.” Chanelle takes breaks from her family by shopping. “It’s me time,” she says. “Sometimes it’s crazy at home, and so I go to the mall for some me time.”

Be it window shopping, online scrolling, or pawing through racks at outlet malls, shopping really can be a mental refresher — like a blip of a vacation without any packing or planning.

Social Connection

Since we’ve been gathering as humans, we’ve gone to the marketplace to connect with other people. “When I go on vacation I always go to where people are shopping,” says Elaine, a retired teacher. “I get a feel for the place and the people, especially if I’m traveling to a different country.” Others, especially young people, meet friends and compare notes about tastes. “It’s how I get to know someone,” says Taylor, a stylish 15-year-old.

Some people, like Jim, connect with likeminded lovers of a particular brand. Since he received his watch, he has attended a store-sponsored party of other Panerai owners and visits a website where Panerai owners post photos of their watches and share advice and news.

If there’s one antidote to emotional distress, it’s human connection. We’re a species that’s mean to be with others; whether it occurs over dinner, at home, or at the mall, it’s therapeutic.

Retail Therapy Fail

In moderation, shopping is therapeutic. But for some, “retail therapy” masks deeper problems, and a real therapist would be a better solution.

Renowned (and stylish) San Francisco therapist Peggy Wynne is someone who appreciates the retail therapy of a great pair of shoes — and she’s also full of insights about when shopping crosses the line and becomes more of a problem than a solution.

According to Peggy, “we all enjoy a little retail therapy now and then. In small, manageable doses, it can soothe the soul. Shopping isn’t a problem when it’s done in moderation, just like moderate use of alcohol.”

Peggy says the most common warning signs for shopping that’s more problem than solution include: avoiding credit card or bank statements; lying or hiding purchases; missing work, school, or other obligations to go shopping; and feeling shame, guilt, or irritability associated with shopping.

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