In the throes of a recent depressive episode, I found a safe haven in Nike’s webstore. Armed with a credit card and faced with an endless array of sneakers and sportswear, I could fill my cart, have it all delivered in less than a week, and, as a NikePlus member, send everything back at no expense if I chose to.
Shopping gave me a measure of control in a period when it felt like I was spiraling. The cycle of browsing, adding to cart, ordering, receiving (and sometimes returning) became habitual. I didn’t need or even really want much of the stuff I was ordering, but I desperately needed the jolt of happiness that came with buying something. Most importantly, the orders were something for my depressed mind to look forward to.
As dark as it is to reflect on now, opening those Nike packages was the only thing I looked forward to every morning.
My most vain, materialistic compulsions were induced by a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. And I didn’t even need to buy anything to get that rush either.
In a paper published in 2007, Stanford researchers found that when test subjects were faced with photos of things they wanted to buy, the region of the brain where dopamine receptors are found would activate.
As illustrated in a 2014 paper in Psychological Science, my online shopping caused my dopamine levels to surge just in anticipation of a reward (in this case, an unboxing experience). However, that instant gratification didn't last. Minutes after unboxing, I’d fall back into a pit, regretting my frivolousness and printing return labels to rescue my credit card balance. Rinse and repeat.
Although shopping can have a therapeutic effect, neuroeconomics expert and UC San Diego assistant professor Uma Karmarkar points out that it’s not actual therapy. Genuine therapy, she says, “has a specific clinical meaning, which is more related to the practice of medicine or psychiatry or psychology, as opposed to the more colloquial term we use to make ourselves feel better in a general sense.”
We might say “retail therapy,” but that's more of an informal descriptor than anything scientific.
Shopping to get out of a funk or satisfy an addictive urge is quite widespread. According to a 2007 paper in journal World Psychiatry, compulsive buying disorder affected 5.8 percent of the US-based respondents surveyed by researchers, equating to nearly 19 million people if applied to the whole country. A 2013 HuffPost survey found that one in three Americans goes shopping to alleviate stress.
But that shopping isn’t without blowback. Of the group polled, 55 percent were more likely to feel stressed by unexpected expenses and 59 percent were concerned about how they’d pay their monthly bills. And those bills can cause enough stress to make you ill.
For example, a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Psychology surveyed more than 23,000 people, finding that those with a shopping addiction were more likely to have depression or anxiety. And while shopping might act as a temporary respite, the study also noted that guilt and remorse after shopping excessively can lead to added depression and anxiety.
Dr. April Benson, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, says that in her decades of treating overshoppers, she’s seen the financial consequences of compulsive buying: crippling debt and exhausted retirement savings. Those consequences can affect spouses, parents, and others connected to your finances. It can even lead to stalled career development in serious cases. These real-world consequences can take a profound emotional toll on a person, exacerbating feelings of guilt, regret, and shame.
Some research, however, finds no negative effects in retail therapy. In 2011, Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy published a study in Psychology and Marketing that examined the strategic nature of how people buy unplanned treats for themselves while in a bad mood — most often clothes among the 69 undergrads sampled.
Looking back on their “treat,” 82 percent of shoppers in Atalay and Meloy’s study reported only positive feelings, with 72 percent of items bought specifically to lift the respondent's mood. Of those shoppers sampled, only two wanted to return their items. By and large, there was no emotional hangover that followed the oft-described “shopper’s high.”
Marketing professors Atalay and Meloy were blunt in their assessment: “All of the results taken together suggest that there seems to be little downside to engaging in unplanned retail therapy.”
They did, however, acknowledge potential blindspots and the need for further study. The costs and benefits of retail therapy can vary among people with different types and levels of emotional distress. There can also be cultural differences that affect the perception of purchases made for oneself.
In the US and other more individualistic consumer cultures, buying things is seen as a means of expression and a marker of wealth and status. In more collectivist societies such as Denmark’s, flaunting wealth and making gratuitous purchases is often frowned upon, and people are less likely to seek materialism as an outlet. Perhaps uncoincidentally, the Danes consistently rank around the top of the UN’s annual World Happiness Report.
Everyone, from the Danish to Americans, shops for different reasons and no two examples of retail therapy are completely alike. So what’s the treatment if those quick dopamine hits from spending money have caused financial and emotional harm over time? Seeing a clinician for cognitive behavioral therapy can help, but first, look at why you feel you need retail therapy.
Everyone has their own emotional state to grapple with, their own motivations for buying a particular item on a particular day, and their own response — positive or negative, lasting or transient — to making a purchase. Do you feel regret when you look at that $300 sweater or does it give you lasting enjoyment? The sweater becomes either a symbol of wellness or overindulgence, and those feelings have a lasting effect.
“Identifying those reasons will give you a lot more insight into what the best fix is going to be for you,” Karmarkar says. “If you can focus on some of the long-term outcomes, that may moderate the way you express your retail therapy, but that’s a challenge.”
In a society filled with opportunities for instant gratification — just look at your phone for a little pinch — playing the long game is a daily, if not hourly challenge. But if you concentrate on what you really need to better yourself, real, lasting opportunities for long-term happiness can come sharply into focus. It’s just a matter of knowing what works, whether it’s buying that sweater or tightening your wallet — and only you know yourself best.