Why Retail Therapy Feels Good, But Won't Make You Happier in the Long Run

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Hi. My name is Shaunacy, and I have a retail therapy addiction.

I suffer from chronic depression, so when I say I buy things I don't need when I am sad, I'm not talking about a rare occurrence. I feel down enough to engage in shopping as therapy often enough that it probably qualifies as a regular shopping addiction, but it’s usually when my regular doses of medicine and traditional therapy aren’t enough that I turn to the minor joys of consumerism. The highs are fleeting, but they are highs nonetheless, in times when other forms of happiness are hard to muster. This year, as my bank account began to take several devastating hits due to my low moods, I began to wonder: Was it worth it? Was retail therapy actually therapeutic in some slight way, or was I emptying my checking and savings accounts without benefiting in the least?

On a personal level, 2016 wasn’t a particularly great year for me, emotionally or financially. Within hours of a devastating breakup, I dropped $280 on a robot vacuum.

This boyfriend and I didn't live together. We didn't share any accounts, neither bank nor Netflix. By legal and financial standards, we were not attached at all—other than in the sense that I would no longer be able to log on to his Amazon Prime account to watch the latest season of Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule (retail: $15). And yet, still, the breakup had the potential to become financially crippling. Within the week, my budget app would be in the red by more than $200, a figure that grew substantially as the weeks went on. And that doesn't even include the money I spent on actual therapy.

I had the savings necessary to cover the costs of my temporary loss of financial sanity, or I would have spent the next month eating canned beans for every meal. I might not have spent quite so much if I hadn't known I had this cushion, but I wasn't thinking clearly, either. It felt like a compulsion. I probably would have overspent no matter what my bank account said, in search of some kind of distraction that could make me feel better. The threat of overspending, in fact, was a little intoxicating. I muttered Tom Haverford's motto from Parks and Recreation over and over: "Treat yo'self." It felt like I deserved it, as silly as that seems. I needed it. It felt like buying all that stuff would help me get my life back.

A compulsive desire to buy things can get serious for some people. Retail therapy, can, in fact, be a sign of a real psychological issue—compulsive buying disorder, an actual shopping addiction, one that typically results in massive debt that sufferers keep secret from friends and family. According to one review of the little research there is on CBD, negative emotions like depression, anxiety, and boredom tend to precede shopping sprees. Once the purchase is made, the shopper tends to feel euphoria and relief.

The symptoms feel frighteningly familiar. April Benson, a New York-based psychologist and the author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, says that one of the reasons people over-shop is to exert some sort of control over their lives. “This is a situation you can control—‘I see it, I like it; I buy it; it’s mine,’” she tells mental_floss. Whereas many other parts of our lives are out of control, whether it’s falling ill or being ghosted by someone on Tinder.

For most people, buying something is an enjoyable process. You get the satisfaction of finding something you want and acquiring it. “It can give [people] a feeling of mastery,” Benson explains. That only becomes a problem when you overdo it, just like enjoying food only becomes a problem when it becomes excessive.

Eric Storch, a clinical psychology professor in the pediatrics department at the University of South Florida’s medical school who studies Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in children and adults, says it’s unclear how exactly compulsion works in the brain, whether in OCD or in compulsive shopping, but for over-shoppers, buying something does trigger the brain’s reward response.

“For a lot of people there’s just this kind of need to fulfill the impulse to acquire it, and once one acquires it, there’s this rush of pleasure and release of tension that’s reinforcing,” he tells mental_floss. Because you get a temporary high from buying something, shopping becomes a repetitive act. You feel a little down, you buy something, you feel a little better, and then when that high fades and you’re back to feeling terrible, the cycle starts again. It’s a little therapeutic in the short term, but you’ll never be satisfied, either.

Retail therapy won’t actually solve depression or heartbreak. If anything, it adds yet another layer of stress to a bad situation: You know that you might feel better in the moment, but you won’t feel so good when the credit card bill comes due. To counteract this, consider starting a splurge fund. You certainly shouldn’t spend your life savings trying to buy your way out of unhappiness, but tucking some money away so that you have a bank account buffer for the next particularly dark time in your personal life isn’t a bad idea. I certainly realize now that I need to divert some of my spending money to a future retail therapy fund.

Still, it’s also important to realize that that new t-shirt or record player isn’t what you’re looking for, really. “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need,” as Benson puts it. “When you were very depressed, you probably needed something other than what you bought,” she tells me. “You might have needed love and affection or a sense of belonging.” Unfortunately, emotional security is one of the few things you can’t find on Amazon.com.