Research shows that “retail therapy” isn’t therapeutic after all. Here’s why you find yourself feeling worse after a shopping spree.
“Retail therapy” is a common phrase, but new studies show it might be a misnomer. As it turns out, retail therapy often has the opposite effect. It provides a temporary elation that becomes a much bigger letdown in the days that follow. Worse still, it’s addictive.
Here’s why you tend to feel worse after a shopping spree.
Your Purchases Can Reinforce Negative Thoughts or Memories
Some people use retail therapy to make up for bad days, such as a relationship breakup or a failure at work. But if you’re not careful, this can result in the direct opposite of making you feel good.
This is a phenomenon known as “compensatory buying”. It happens if you buy something that corresponds to a perceived failing. For example, say you get romantically rejected, and you think it’s due to your looks. You then go on a buying spree, getting new dresses, make-up, high heels, etc.
You may feel momentarily better. But over the next few weeks or months, seeing these items will make you dwell on your perceived imperfections. For breakups and work failures, the items may become mementos of that particularly horrible day. Keeping them around then causes you to feel worse, instead of better.
They may also trigger a habitual response, where looking at them makes you feel bad, which triggers another buying spree, which then causes you to feel bad again, and so forth.
If you must spend to feel better, at least spend on intangible experiences such as a holiday, guitar classes, or spa treatment. That’s better than buying objects that remind you of perceived inadequacies.
After the Momentary Elation, the Letdown Can Feel Worse
It’s a little like drinking iced water when your mouth is on fire from too much chilli: it feels good for a while…then it feels much worse, as the pain seems to return tenfold.
When you are having a bad day, shopping can create a temporary distraction from the pain. But the moment you stop, the difference between your two states of being – from excited and happy to sullen depression – can be dramatic. Your mood now has a much higher place to fall from.
This is disturbingly similar to the pattern of substance addicts, such as smokers and alcoholics, who become dependent on something to stop feeling bad. Shopping really can become such a crutch, and an expensive one at that.
It’s important to learn other, less escapist methods of dealing with your problems. Spending time with family, playing with a pet (play with a friend’s pet if you don’t have one), or exercising are better ways to cope.
Lack of Money is a Big Source of Depression
As Holden Caulfield once said, “Goddamn money. It always ends up making you feel blue as hell.”
And it is true that, for almost everyone on the planet, thinking about a lack of money is a major source of depression. When you are down to the last S$50 in your bank account, you’re almost guaranteed to feel anxious and moody (more so if you also have unpaid debt).
There’s no surprise that this is connected to shopping sprees. In the aftermath of such events, we’re often saddled with significant bills and wiped out savings. If retail therapy is an addiction, it can drive us into so much debt that it becomes a cycle: the debt causes us to spend to get over it, which in turns drives us into further debt.
If you’re in this situation, try to replace shopping with another form of therapy for a while. You’ll notice that, as your debt fades and your bank account grows, you will also feel more secure, and hence better.
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By Ryan Ong
Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.