This week I’ve been intrigued by the concept of ‘Retail Therapy’. I’m sure we’ve all been there, you’ve had a slightly rubbish week and you decide to go out and treat yourself to a new toothbrush, rug or whatever your heart desires at the time. To get scientific for a minute, previous researchers have defined Retail therapy as ‘The use of shopping and buying as a way to repair or alleviate negative feelings’ . Others consider retail therapy to be the consumption of goods to compensate for feeling such as low self-esteem or perceived loss of power .
Looking further into previous research, studies have highlighted the benefits of retail therapy on an individuals mental health. For example, a study conducted in 2011  found the act of shopping to have a positive effect for those experiencing a low or upset mood. Further to this, afterwards they found that the individuals did not regret spending money on these ‘self-treats’.
But why exactly does the act of shopping have such a benefit on our mental health? Previous researchers have suggested the following reasons why:
It gives you a sense of control – Sadness can be associated with a perceived deficiency in personal control over one’s environment . When we feel that our lives are out of our control, shopping can help restore a sense of personal control which can reduce sadness and negative feelings. When we shop, we are faced with making choices; researchers have stressed this as a good way of increasing an individual’s sense of personal control .
It’s a social activity – Like the old saying goes, misery sure does love company. When individuals are feeling sad, research has shown their desire for social connectedness to be higher than normal . For some, going outside and physically shopping will provide them with social interactions which may help improve their mood .
It provides a distraction – Visiting a store is an experience, with plenty of smells, sounds and sights to be seen. All of this sensual stimulation can lead to shopping being perceived as a source of positive distraction . While we are shopping, we can forget about our worries and anxieties for a little while.
It can be exciting – People get joy from how unpredictable some elements of shopping can be. Sometimes you don’t know what you are going to buy and this can lead to excitement and anticipation . In addition to this, the process of shopping releases dopamine, a neurochemical which makes us feel happy and is responsible for the ‘high’ individuals may experience.
But not all previous research paints retail therapy in a positive light. Some researchers have questioned the appropriateness of shopping as a coping method, labelling it as ineffective and wasteful . They argue that it can’t be the best coping mechanism, as most individuals do not have an endless supply of money.
For some individuals, the ‘buzz’ that they feel from buying things can become an addiction. Shopping addiction (also known as oniomania) is described as an addiction where an individual invests excessive time and resources to shop. People with oniomania are always chasing the next ‘high’, that sensation they feel from buying something new. Like any addiction, oniomania really can have desperate consequences for individuals. It can lead to them losing their financial security or a losing their own feelings of self control. It can even have a detrimental impact on their relationships as they are likely to neglect these in place of craving their next shopping session.
Personally, I’ve always understood how shopping can be an addictive activity, especially now with the creation of online shopping which doesn’t help those with an unhealthy urge to shop. Reflecting on the research that I’ve found surrounding retail therapy and shopping addiction, I’ve decided to set myself a personal challenge. In the UK during October some people decide to give drinking up for the month, it’s known as ‘going sober for October’. I thought I’d put my own twist on this (bear with me) and decide to give up shopping for material and unneeded objects for a whole month, so I’m going sober in my own kind of way…
I know this is going to be tough and I don’t know how I’m going to reward myself for completing this (buying myself something to celebrate feels slightly inappropriate). I’ll keep you updated on my progress throughout the month.
So, what are your own shopping habits and what links do you think they have to your own mental health? I’d be interested to know.
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- Woodruffe-Burton, H., & Elliott, R. (2005). Compensatory consumption and narrative identity theory. ACR North American Advances.
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- Gray, H. M., Ishii, K., & Ambady, N. (2011). Misery loves company: When sadness increases the desire for social connectedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1438-1448.
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