Retail Therapy: The Benefits of Shopping

By Chris Birk on 1 December 2010 (Updated 16 December 2010) 1 comment
Photo: Witz Suzara

Oddly enough, the relationship between money and happiness might best be summed up in the Hitchcock classic Psycho, when minor character Tom Cassidy explains why he's buying a house for his daughter's wedding gift: “Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now, that’s not buying happiness. That’s just buying off unhappiness.” 

Retail therapy embraces a similar logic, namely that consumers can curb or ward off their unhappiness through impulse purchases. The concept often brings a sense of frivolity and sometimes even shame. But the reality is there's increasing evidence that spending money can make you feel better. The key is how and what you purchase. And, of course, for whom.

A trio of psychology professors, led by Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia, recently published a paper titled, "If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending it Right." Their research examines the relationship between money and happiness and seizes on an intuitive yet elusive notion: Money can and should make you happier, and if it doesn't, well, you're doing it wrong.

"Our money provides us with satisfaction when we think about it, but not when we use it," the scholars note in their conclusion. "That shouldn’t happen.  Money can buy many, if not most, if not all of the things that make people happy, and if it doesn't, then the fault is ours."

The scholars carve out a path for consumers to feel better through buying. Here are a few major veins:

Buy Experiences

When it comes to shopping for ourselves, research suggests that humans are bad at guessing what will make them happy. So shoppers in search of a boost should aim to purchase something that provides an experience.

Experiences — trips, a day at the spa, camping — provide us with sensory pleasures and keep our minds focused on the present. Tangible items and merchandise, in contrast, send us into a whirlwind of thought: Will that new polo shirt fit well after Thanksgiving? Could a popped collar look any more stupid?

Purchase "Small Pleasures"

Another tip is to buy small pleasures instead of big-ticket items that are one-and-done transactions. It’s similar to the idea of buying an experience because small things are likely to go hand-in-hand with social interaction: a drink after work, a round of putt-putt golf, or a coffee at the bookstore. These scenarios provide change and inject excitement into our lives.

Be a Do-Gooder

The general gist is this: Folks who spend on their friends are happier than those who don't. This helps move the idea of retail therapy beyond merely self-serving concerns and into the broader community.

Other studies and surveys over the last few years have hinted at some other potential benefits associated with consumerism. For example, bargain hunting tends to produce a thrill greater than kissing a partner, earning a promotion at work, and even eating chocolate, according to a study by Chevrolet.

Shopping may shrink more than your wallet, too. Walking around, carrying bags, and dodging foot traffic is undoubtedly one way to burn calories. In Britain a study of 4,500 women found that shoppers stay out longer — thus walking more — when they go with friends. About 57 percent of the women said they felt physically healthier after a good shopping spree. 

Find Balance

It probably goes without saying that splurging on a home theater system or dropping $5,000 for a week-long spa trip is not the best way to deal with a bad breakup. There are better coping mechanisms.

But there are clearly some emotional and even physical benefits associated with shopping. In fact, sometimes carefully considered self-spending can do some real good. The key is moderation and a clear understanding that transactions aren't a substitute for true emotional nourishment.

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Jim

I love the comment "If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending it Right." Spot on.
Our shopping habits are reflective of the hunter/gatherer in us. Men and women shop differently. We get a short, little bit of pleasure from shopping, which is quickly replaced with feeling normal. Spending smaller amounts more often seems to be a great way to deal with that.