This Is Why Retail Therapy Feels So Good

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
It's no secret that shopping for yourself — and even for other people — can feel good. After all, there's a reason why we call it "retail therapy." Not only are you walking away with stuff that'll improve your mood (and hopefully your life), you're also coming away with the high or the comfort of buying something for yourself.
Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, says that shopping can make a great coping mechanism for a number of reasons, not least of all because you're treating yourself.
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"We imagine ourselves either wearing the new outfit or using a new product, and when we think about that, we envision ourselves being happier," she says. "It gives us a temporary boost just imagining it."
That temporary boost might also have something to do with the fact that shopping gives us a sense of control, of regulating what we take into our lives.
"When life is chaotic, we might go, 'what's something I can do?'" Morin says. When the answer is shopping, it means you can go out, pick something up and bring it home, "it gives you sort of a false sense of control in the moment," she adds.
Plus, shopping can be something you do that's social — whether you do it with friends or you do it as a way of getting yourself out of the house and around other people.
All of this is why a shopping spree can feel so, well, therapeutic. A 2011 study published in the journal Psychology and Marketing suggested that retail therapy can actually be an effective way to improve a bad mood because treating yourself really can cheer you up, even if briefly. Though it also suggested that shopping while you're in a bad mood can make you more impulsive when it comes to spending. (If you've ever racked up a hefty bill after a bad day at work or a break-up, this probably isn't news to you.)

The solution might be to understand that retail therapy isn't a substitute for actual therapy, and to ask yourself why you're turning to shopping in the first place.

So, yes, retail therapy can make you happy, but as anyone who's ever experienced buyer's remorse can tell you, that feeling is usually temporary.
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"A lot of the time, people are disappointed that the item they bought doesn’t bring them the happiness that they predicted," Morin says.
What's more, along with temporary relief, going a little overboard with shopping could bring about even more stress. Apart from the obvious drawbacks, like going into debt, Morin says that indulging in too much retail therapy could lead to a vicious cycle where the more stressed out or upset you are, the more you buy, and the more you buy, the more stressed out you (and your bank account and storage closets) are.
The solution, then, might be to understand that retail therapy isn't a substitute for actual therapy, and to ask yourself why you're turning to shopping in the first place. If it's an escape from problems with being lonely or anxious, Morin says there are other ways of addressing those issues without doing damage to your credit score.
"Exercising, meditating, or even reading a book are all things proven to help you feel better in the short-term without doing long-term damage," she suggests.
But if you find that you're still not feeling your best after doing those things, it might be time to substitute retail therapy with an actual doctor, even if you think you're just going through a temporary rough patch.
"If your mood is such that you don't feel like going out for coffee with your friends, you're not interested in things you used to enjoy, or you don't feel like leaving bed in the morning and it lasts more than a few weeks, I'd say it's time to talk to someone," Morin says.
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Otherwise, a little retail therapy in moderation probably isn't the worst way to cope with a bad day (or even a few bad days). Just make sure you're not using it to distract from anything that you should address.
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