The smell of brand new clothing, the feeling of ripping the tags off a freshly bought shirt, and the euphoria in swiping your credit card. Who needs meditation when there's shopping to increase your serotonin, right? We've all heard the quotes "shopping is cheaper than therapy" or "when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping". Albeit, these quotes are humorous in nature and commonly joked about. However, the concepts behind them may help us delve deeper into the truths behind why a weekend trip to the mall can be beneficial.
Facts Don't Lie
A recent survey conducted by Huffington Post, found that nearly one in three recently stressed Americans shops to deal with stress (which accounts for 91 percent of the general population) shops to deal with stress. The survey was conducted online as a poll of over 1,000 U.S. adults. As it may be expected, the poll also found that women were twice as likely as men to result to retail therapy as a way to cope with their stress (40 percent vs. 19 percent). This understandably led to the results that men were twice as likely than women (34 percent vs. 16 percent) to say that they had never shopped out of stress and would not consider ever doing so. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/retail-therapy-shopping_n_3324972
Curious as to what my peers would say when faced with a similar survey, I conducted my own. When asked if they use shopping to deal with stress, a poll of 100 of my Instagram followers found that 88 people answered "yes" and 12 people answered "no". Of the 88 people who answered "yes", 86 percent were women while 14 percent were men. Of the 12 people who answered "no", 67 percent were men and 33 percent were women. Gender aside, stress shoppers have many things in common pertaining to the reasons they do it.
So what specific psychological benefits does "retail therapy" possess that causes people to turn to it to help them deal with stress? One benefit I found repeatedly is that those who shop to alleviate stress, use it to avoid other stressors in their life such as weight, work and family. In other words, when it comes to "fight or flight", shopping is the flight. Instead of facing the root of other anxieties, people turn to shopping because it provides them with an immediate and convenient satisfaction that they are in control of. Studies also show that our unconscious mind continues to work out problems while we're engaged in a different activity. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-why-behind-the-buy/201305/why-retail-therapy-works. It allows us to mentally escape the perpetual stressors of our everyday lives, even if just for a moment while our credit card is being swiped.
Another therapeutic benefit is that shopping for new clothes also allows us to visualize how we will utilize them to improve our lives. For example, often times I go shopping before a big event such as the new school year, a big vacation, or a formal dance. When I buy the items, I visualize myself wearing them and having a better time because I'm in a new outfit that I know I love. Visualization can be a performance enhancer and an anxiety reducer. Having control over one aspect of a big transition can allow us to do better or have a better time. For example, if you walk in a room with an old ripped up shirt and your grandmas old pants on, you wouldn't be as confident as we would in a brand-new dress or suit. This is part of the allure of shopping. It allows an escape and is a means to manifest the higher selves we see in our heads.
We also truly can "dress for success". In a study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants were asked to wear white coats that they were told were doctor's coats. When wearing these coats, students were far more accurate on a test of attentional focus and concentration (traits associated with physicians) than the control group who simply wore their street clothes for the experiment. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-why-behind-the-buy/201305/why-retail-therapy-works. Clothing is an automatic voice for our personality traits, the job we want, or the way we will interact with people before we even open our mouths.
When Shopping Doesn't Make the Cut
While retail therapy can be a gratifying experience, it also has downsides. If you start using it to avoid serious detrimental problems in your life, you make need to do some self-reflection to see where the root of the issue is- and why retail therapy is not equivalent to professional therapy. It can also become a problem when you overuse your financial means on shopping and no longer have money to fall back on. Buying a new outfit can certainly be self-soothing, but it doesn't soothe your bank account.