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Shop Til You Smile: Can Retail Therapy Beat the Winter Blues?

written by Skye Sherman - Jan 6, 2020
medically reviewed by Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - Sep 13, 2022

Photo Credit: by Dominique Wormald,
Photo Credit: by Dominique Wormald,

If you’re an adult responsible for making your own money, you’re likely familiar with the similar joy of spending said money for whatever you want. There’s a mental rush in walking into a store, picking what you want and purchasing it. Many people turn to retail therapy, or shopping for the purpose of making themselves happy, in order to help lift up their spirits on a bad day or indulge in the purchase of a product or service they’ve long been eyeing.

But is retail therapy a real thing? Don’t we typically just buy the items we need, and not shop for the sole purpose of enjoying the process of browsing and selecting items for purchase? Not necessarily--research suggests this phenomenon is very real, and it does have psychological implications.

In fact, an article in the New York Post reports, “Retail therapy really does exist and it makes up more than one fifth of all shopping purchases, the research reveals. A new survey of 2,000 people across the country found that the average American polled spends a whopping $1,652 per year on purchases just to cheer themselves up. … More than two-thirds of people say that shopping has some therapeutic qualities, and seven in ten admit to having bought themselves something nice simply to cheer themselves up with 13 percent saying they do this on a regular basis.”

So, if you’re having a tough day, maybe it’s time to go shopping! … Or maybe not. Read on to explore whether retail therapy really can make you feel better, how to know if your shopping is a problem, and what to do to lift your spirits if you’re facing the winter blues--free and otherwise.

Does shopping make you happy? The psychology of retail therapy

Wondering if shopping really does make you happy? If you love to shop, you may already have an answer here! The thrill of the hunt--and the catch--can bring you quite a hefty dose of happiness. But, as you may also likely know as a shopper, it isn’t built to last.

An article in VeryWellMind states, “Have you ever found yourself buying something you don’t need, to make yourself happy? Do you spend more when you’re stressed? ‘Retail therapy’ is one method of stress relief that many people use consciously or subconsciously—it’s the act of buying yourself a little something to boost your mood when you’re feeling low, and it may be more common than you think. …

“One study conducted by a Penn State researcher surveyed a group of regular shoppers, all of whom had bought themselves a treat in the prior week, and found that 62% of those purchases had been made in an effort to lift mood. Another study on the demographics of compulsive buying found that women and those who were younger (late teens) were more prone to this behavior.”

VeryWellMind claims that the “more intense cousin” of retail therapy is compulsive shopping, which can be a real problem when it spirals out of control. Compulsive shopping can take over your life with impulse buys and can drain your savings at an alarming rate. If you suspect you may be subjecting yourself to compulsive shopping or even a shopping addiction, it’s important to ask for help as soon as possible.

Retail therapy isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes, when it’s not handled responsibly, it comes with feelings of shame, regret, or sorrow over the damage you’ve done. The article in New York Post continues, “Around 40 percent admit that they feel guilty after engaging in retail therapy, with two in three lamenting that they should have spent the money on something more important. The top reasons for resorting to purchase-based therapy include relief from anxiety (44 percent), boredom (43 percent), a busy schedule (38 percent), work-related stress (27 percent), and issues with a partner or spouse (23 percent). The afternoon is the most popular time for retail therapy and 37 percent admit to having indulged themselves at work. As for the target, clothes are the number one source of retail relief, followed by shoes and food.”

If you spend too much money or spend it on frivolous, unimportant, or useless items, you may end up feeling worse than you did when you started. Shopping as a method of seeking relief from anxiety won’t really help; shopping to relieve boredom isn’t productive; shopping because you’re too busy is counter-productive; and shopping to relieve the stress of issues at work or at home will likely only add to your overall burden rather than lighten it.

A safe way to indulge in retail therapy is to create a budget and ensure all your bills are paid in full before you even consider heading out to the stores. Once you’ve paid all necessary bills and maybe even set a little aside for charity or sacrificial giving, then create a budget of how much you can reasonably spend, in a way that will bring more help than harm to your life. Once you have that number, set yourself free to have fun! Still, stick to that budget like a lifeline--you can even take out the “retail therapy budget” in cash and spend only that to ensure you don’t overspend by charging everything on a credit card. But as long as you’re within your limits, you can limit the potential harm that retail therapy can bring.

Sometimes, treating yourself to a new dress or a new shade of lipstick that will make you feel confident, spontaneously booking a soothing massage, or spending a little over budget on your best friend’s birthday gift really will make you feel better, and the money you spent is worth what you receive in return. But if your shopping becomes a problem or causes you financial harm, or even extends so far as to burden your family or loved ones, then it’s safe to say that you’ve taken retail therapy too far. It can be a fun and joy-making activity, but it has its limits and it’s easy to step out of bounds into territory you didn’t want to venture.

How to have a happy shopping trip

Want to experience the benefits of retail therapy to its fullest potential? Here are some tips to make your shopping trip the happiest it can be.

The number one rule is to know your budget and abide by it. As long as you do that, you can reduce the impact of poor shopping choices and the guilt they cause. Respect your budget and you can enjoy the pleasant feelings that shopping can bring--and as any good shopper knows, there’s no joy that compares to scoring a good deal! Shop smartly and look for sales, discounts, or coupons that will stretch your money even further.

Another way to make your shopping trip even happier is instead of dressing in black or dark colors during the winter, focus your shopping expedition on purchasing bright colors to wear during winter or during the seasons ahead. Shop for things that will lift your spirits, such as a new lamp for your reading nook at home or a strong moisturizer that will give your skin a hydrating quench. These items can be considered necessities, but they can be just as fun to shop for as the frivolous items.

You can also shop secondhand in order to get more of the feel-good benefits of shopping while minimizing the financial drawbacks or strain it can add. Shopping at thrift stores is more environmentally friendly and often far less expensive, so it’s a good idea both for you and the planet.

Want to take a “shopping trip” that won’t hurt your wallet in the slightest? The mall can be a great place for walking laps and window shopping. Call up a friend or two and invite them to walk the mall with you. It can be a much more exciting place to get your heart rate lifted than a track in a gym, and it’s certainly much warmer than outside, which may be inhabitable for walkers during the wintertime.

Put on athletic clothes, just like you would for a walk outdoors, and pick up the pace for a brisk walk from end to end of the mall. Not only will it help you get in the spirit of the season through all the beautiful retail displays, but there is no pressure to buy or shop as you pass the windows and enjoy what they have to offer on a visual level only. You will receive much of the benefits of “retail therapy” with none of the guilt.

Health benefits of shopping

Psychology Today reports that a few of the therapeutic benefits of shopping include easing transitions, helping you dress for success, a chance to get creative or appreciate the creativity and design of others, enjoying a bit of relaxation and escape, and the social connection. You may also burn calories as you walk, shop, carry, and load.

Still, the article reminds us, “In moderation, shopping is therapeutic. But for some, ‘retail therapy’ masks deeper problems, and a real therapist would be a better solution.”

The important thing here is to ensure that you are shopping only in moderation and in ways that do not do more harm than good. The health benefits of shopping can temporarily lift your spirits, but you cannot neglect your responsibilities or the needs of those who rely on you for the sake of your shopping.

When shopping turns dangerous: retail therapy vs. shopping addiction

At the end of the day, you have to realize that “retail therapy” is a lighthearted term meant to describe the happy feelings shopping can give us thanks to the opportunity to buy things for others, pick out new items that will make us happy, or garner a sense of pride for wisely spending what you’ve worked too hard to earn.

Still, no amount of new things can make you happy, and shopping is not really a form of therapy. If you truly need therapy or are battling intense feelings of sadness, you’re not going to find the remedy in a store or at the bottom of an extra-large shopping bag. And you’re especially not going to find it at the hands of the debt collector.

Retail therapy can turn into something more sinister if your shopping trips are unnecessary or out of control. According to Psychology Today, signs that you may have a shopping addiction or problems with compulsive shopping may include avoiding your credit card or bank statements; lying or hiding purchases from those close to you; missing work, school, or other obligations to go shopping; and feeling shame, guilt, or irritability as a result of your shopping. You can cause great harm to yourself and those around you by living with a shopping addiction.

If you are experiencing these symptoms or if your loved ones have come to you expressing dissatisfaction or concern over your spending or shopping habits, then it’s time to take a look at yourself and consider seeking help.

Happy tips: alternative ways to beat the winter blues

Feeling down but don’t want to add to your problems by spending money that would be better segregated elsewhere? Consider other ways to beat the blues.

For one, maybe you just need a healthy nap; not getting enough sleep can be a major drag on your health and happiness levels. You may need a good, sweaty workout or simply to get your body moving and active. Other activities that may boost your mood and improve your life at the same time include cleaning your house, organizing a messy drawer or closet, sorting a pile of old clothes or items to donate, journaling about what you’re grateful for, or spending time with friends and family. Read a good book or take an enriching class at the local library; watch a documentary or try out a new recipe for a healthy and nourishing comfort food, like soup.

If you still can’t seem to shake your sadness or feelings of unhappiness, it may be time to look into some real therapy. Talking to a medical professional about how you’re feeling may help you get back on track more quickly and effectively.

And of course, depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) may require more help than you can find in a mall. SAD is a mood disorder that involves a bout of depression that tends to arrive at the same time every year, usually during the winter when there is less light during the day or when people are more confined to their homes due to the harsh weather outside.

If you’re facing what you think might be depression rather than merely the winter blues, consider talking to your doctor about the new antidepressant Viibryd. It’s worth discussing with a medical professional to find out whether this medication may be right for you and your situation. Before you hit the mall or click “Place Order” online, ask yourself if it will really be the most effective and healthy way to feel better in the long run.



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