Retail Therapy Is Real: Here's Why It Works

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It can be said with near certainty that everyone, at some point in their life, has uttered that they're in need of some "retail therapy." Whether spoken jokingly or in all seriousness, the desire to go shopping to deal with a difficult situation or ameliorate a bad mood is entirely natural—and it can prove to be effective.

"We all enjoy a little retail therapy now and then," says San Francisco–based therapist Peggy Wynne in Time. "In small, manageable doses, it can soothe the soul." A study published in the journal Psychology and Marketing has shown shopping can improve a bad mood, and not just temporarily but over the long term, concluding that "retail therapy has lasting positive impacts on mood." Consumers use retail therapy for a variety of reasons, depending on their shopping habits or even from situation to situation. We've outlined four of the major ways retail therapy, or even window shopping therapy, can be an effective coping mechanism. Keep reading to discover the ways retail therapy works.

Autonomy

Forbes has noted how shopping can be a logical coping mechanism for people who feel like they have no control over their environment or situation. "They are able to control where they go and what they purchase," the author explains. "In a time when they feel they can't do anything about their circumstances, people turn to shopping to exercise autonomy."

Visualization

"Shopping can be a rich source of mental preparation," writes Kit Yarrow in Time. "As people shop, they're naturally visualizing how they'll use the products being considered, and in doing so, they're also visualizing their new life. And as many great athletes will attest, visualization is a performance booster and an anxiety reducer." Yarrow notes that there's a reason two of the most shopping-intensive times of our lives are concurrent with two of life's greatest transitions—getting married and having a baby. Shopping helps us prepare for these transitions not just functionally but also mentally. "These activities help people feel more control and less anxiety about the unknowns lying ahead."

Self-Image

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research finds that "consumers use products to reactively cope with challenges to their self-image, as well as to proactively protect themselves against potential challenges." Consumption of goods can help to craft one's own self-image. If you're moving to a new city to start a new job, you may invest in a nicer wardrobe to set your intention for success, boost confidence, and create a good first impression with your peers. "Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat," write the study's authors. "After receiving negative feedback, consumers seem to increase their consumption more generally, as consumption may serve as a means to distract them from negative feedback."

Escape

Yarrow shares that in many of her consumer interviews, "online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini mental vacation." A browsing session can be a mindless way to escape from the real world for a bit and provide a short, entertaining break from a difficult decision, task, or responsibility at hand—even lending itself to improving performance and decision-making. "Be it window shopping, online scrolling, or pawing through racks at outlet malls, shopping really can be a mental refresher—like a blip of a vacation, without any packing or planning."

Next up, find out what type of people are most susceptible to shopping addiction.