Does Retail Therapy Actually Work?

Retail Therapy

We’ve all been there – a rough day (or week, or month) at work, a frustrating encounter with a rude person, a breakup or spat with a significant other. The stress and negative emotions build up until you can’t take it anymore.

You need an outlet, a release, some way to lift your spirits. That’s when the siren song of the mall begins calling out: “Come to me, let’s go shopping, everything will be alright once you make a purchase!”

I’m totally guilty of indulging in a little retail therapy from time to time. Like many of you, I’ve turned to shopping as a coping mechanism and a way to cheer myself up on many occasions over the years.

But does it really work?

Does swiping that credit card and scoring some new stuff genuinely make us feel better in the long run? Or are we just falling for a temporary high that fades fast?

Let’s take a look.

What is Retail Therapy?

happy shopping bags

Defining the Term

So what exactly is this “retail therapy” that so many people swear by? Put simply, it refers to the concept of shopping and spending money on things (clothing, accessories, gadgets, home goods, you name it) as a way to boost your mood and alleviate stress, sadness, or other negative feelings you may be experiencing.

History and Origins

Interestingly, the term “retail therapy” can be traced back to at least the 1980s where it appeared in newspaper articles and books discussing consumer culture. However, the practice of using shopping as a pick-me-up goes back much further than that.

Historians had found evidence of retail therapy-esque behavior as early as the 19th century, when the rise of modern consumer capitalism gave the masses newfound access to an abundance of material goods.

My Personal Experiences with Retail Therapy

The Highs of a Shopping Spree

That Euphoric Rush

I still vividly remember one of my earliest retail therapy highs as a bright-eyed college student. It was right after bombing a huge exam, leaving me overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, self-doubt, and cratering self-esteem.

But then a weekend trip to the mall with friends for some therapeutic shopping turned it all around. With each new addition to my cart, from those trendy jeans to the slick new video game, a sense of giddiness overtook me.

Walking out of the stores, retail bags in hand, I felt a huge weight had been lifted and was filled with an almost euphoric surge of dopamine. All was right in the world again.

Filling the Void (Temporarily)

Riding that shopper’s high is remarkably effective at displacing whatever was plaguing you in the moment. Looking back now with more life experience, it’s clear that I was using those purchases to fill an emotional void and distract myself from my academic struggles and insecurities about my future.

The retail therapy acted as a sort of salve, providing temporary relief from my swirling stresses and negativity. Sounds like the tagline for a drug, doesn’t it?

The Lows and Downsides

Buyer’s Remorse

Of course, the problem with chasing those retail therapy highs is that they never last. At some point, the exhilaration of acquiring something new always wears off.

I can’t count how many times just a couple days after a binge, I’d look at my closet full of impulse purchases and feel the creeping wave of buyer’s remorse.

So often, I ended up with things I didn’t truly need or even want that much, leaving me wondering “Why did I buy that?!” and regretting the amount I’d spent.

The Spending Hangover

Then there’s the dreaded spending hangover – that sinking feeling when you take a hard look at your bank accounts and recent credit card statements.

Where did all that money go?

How will I pay rent this month?

The short-term satisfaction from retail therapy can hardly compensate for the long-term guilt and anxiety that come from saddling yourself with debt and draining your funds to an unhealthy degree.

Examining the Psychology Behind It

credit card swipe payment

The “Buying High”

Plenty of research explores why exactly shopping can deliver such a potent high. It largely comes down to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released in the brain’s reward system when we acquire new possessions.

Basically, we’re wired to experience a dose of pleasure from obtaining stuff, harking back to our hunter-gatherer days when securing resources meant survival. This dopamine loop becomes extra strong with shopping’s anticipation > purchase > reward pattern.

Seeking Validation and Control

Studies also suggest retail therapy ties into our desire for control and validation. When life feels chaotic and we lack agency, buying things allows us to exert our autonomy as a consumer while “treating” ourselves boosts self-worth.

We use these purchases to try and compensate for deficits in self-esteem, confidence, and status.

Shopping as an Escape

For many, the act of shopping serves as a escape from whatever problems they’re facing in daily life. By immersing themselves in the shopping experience and getting caught up in the materialistic pursuit, it becomes a distraction and reprieve from negative stressors and emotions like boredom, loneliness, grief, or anxiety.

It’s a way to run away from those feelings instead of confronting them head-on.

Does It Actually Work Long-Term?

The Research Says…

So shopping may provide fleeting pleasure and temporary stress-relief, but does retail therapy genuinely work as a long-term coping mechanism? Unfortunately, a growing body of research suggests the negative consequences outweigh the benefits.

Multiple studies have found that while mood does get a short-term boost right after shopping, it’s followed by a significant drop in life satisfaction and happiness levels a few weeks or months later as guilt sets in. This roller coaster effect can actually increase sadness, anxiety, stress, and other problems in the long run.

What’s more, compulsive buying has been associated with lower self-esteem, poorer mental health and life satisfaction, more loneliness, debt issues, and fractured relationships. It becomes a vicious cycle where people rely on shopping to fill an inner void, but the temporary fix inevitably leaves them feeling emptier, worsening the original issues they sought to escape.

Finding Healthier Coping Mechanisms

The healthier approach? Finding constructive, productive ways to deal with negative emotions that don’t involve material overconsumption. Things like exercise, meditation, journaling, spending time in nature, and cultivating close personal relationships are far better long-term solutions. Practicing self-care and gratitude can also boost your mental well-being in more sustainable ways.

I’m not saying you can never shop for fun or self-gifting again. But relying on it as your primary way of dealing with stress, sadness, anger, and other intense emotions is ultimately self-defeating.

Responsible Retail Therapy

Setting a Budget

I get it – shopping can lift your spirits and there’s nothing inherently wrong with using it once in a while as a relatively harmless treat. Even mental health experts say a little responsible retail therapy can be okay as long as it’s truly occasional and doesn’t lead to unmanageable debt or hoarding.

The key is setting a reasonable budget and not blowing your whole paycheck because you’re feeling blue. Pick an amount you’re comfortable spending without going overboard, like $50-100. Use cash instead of cards to make the spending more concrete. Or set up a separate “fun money” fund to which you can contribute a fixed amount each month.

Pursuing Quality Over Quantity

A great way to get more satisfaction and longevity out of your retail therapy splurges is to be very selective and prioritize quality over quantity.

Instead of loading up your cart with a bunch of cheap impulse buys you’ll likely regret, save up to invest in a few higher-quality items of true value – durable goods, classic pieces, or something indulgent yet pragmatic. I find the anticipation and research involved in thoughtful purchases can make the eventual acquisition even more rewarding.

The Joy of Giving

One seriously underrated form of retail therapy is shopping for other people! Not only does this avoid the guilt of self-indulgence, but you also get that same excitement and serotonin boost from acquiring fun gifts for loved ones and watching them light up when receiving them.

There’s something incredibly fulfilling about picking out the perfect present for someone special. It’s a far more positive way to channel that shopping motivation.


big department store

So in summary, does retail therapy work? Well, kind of…but not really.

While the instant gratification of a shopping binge floods our brains with those coveted feel-good chemicals and provides momentary emotional relief, the effects wear off quickly.

In the long run, relying on retail therapy as a coping mechanism comes with major downsides in the form of debt, guilt, loss of self-control, and potential addiction.

However, a little indulgent shopping now and then within healthy limits and as part of a balanced lifestyle isn’t necessarily an issue.

The key is being very self-aware and strategic about your spending habits. Set firm budgets, prioritize quality over quantity, explore more constructive ways of managing stress/emotions, and consider funneling some of that retail energy into giving.

Ultimately, I’ve learned that material possessions and shopping for shopping’s sake won’t fill the voids in my life or provide true lasting satisfaction.

At the end of the day, building strong relationships, pursuing purposeful passions, appreciating what I already have, and taking care of my mental health are what really keep me grounded and happy. The shopping bags just collect dust.

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