Is Retail Therapy for Real?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 10, 2021
4 min read

If you’ve gone shopping when you’re feeling sad or stressed, you may recall how your mood improved when you window-shopped or bought something. Does retail therapy really make you feel better?

Retail therapy is when you go shopping for the main purpose of making yourself feel better. A study found that 62% of shoppers bought something to cheer themselves up. A further 28% made a purchase to celebrate something.

Many people think of retail therapy as wasteful. But there may be psychological benefits to going shopping.

Helps you feel in control. Sadness is generally associated with a feeling that you can’t control what’s happening in your life. Experts say that the act of making choices when shopping can restore your feeling of control over your life.

A study found that buying things you enjoy can be up to 40 times more effective at giving you a sense of control in your life compared to not shopping.

Brings happiness. You can get an emotional and psychological boost from visiting stores or even browsing online.

Anticipating the possibility of a treat or reward releases a hormone called dopamine in your brain. This causes you to feel good. Dopamine makes you want to keep finding ways that make you feel good.

Sometimes you don’t even need to buy something to feel better. Going window shopping or filling up an online cart allows you to have an exciting emotional journey.

Distraction. Getting out of your house and going shopping may provide a distraction from whatever’s making you feel sad.

The brightly lit and colorful displays at the stores can take you away from your own reality. This works with online shopping, too. The attractively curated online products can distract you from your sadness.

Social interaction. Shopping gets you out of the house and into a mall with other people. In a survey, participants shopped alone, but the act of shopping gave them a connection to society.

Saving up can be therapeutic. The act of saving up for an item can give you something to look forward to. This results in a release of dopamine over time.

Shopping may have emotional benefits but it can also become a problem. 

Money problems. Shopping may lighten your stress, but it can also lighten your wallet. This is especially the case when you use credit cards or online payment methods. Research has shown that paying with cards and online apps feels less real than paying with cash. This means you tend to spend more.

Addiction. Shopping can also turn into compulsive behavior. People with compulsive buying disorder spend significant time on shopping and spending money. This disorder has several phases:

  1. Anticipation, where you have an urge to go shopping or buy a specific item.
  2. Preparation for shopping, such as thinking about where and when to go, research on sale items and new shops.
  3. The actual shopping experience, which you find exciting.
  4. The purchase, which is then followed by a sense of disappointment with yourself.

Some 5.8% of Americans have an addiction to shopping. This compulsion tends to start in the late teens or early twenties. There’s some evidence that it runs in families who tend to also have anxiety, mood, and substance abuse disorders.

You may have a shopping compulsion if you:

  • Spend a lot of time researching items that you may not need
  • Have money problems because of your shopping
  • Are constantly thinking of buying unneeded things
  • Have difficulty stopping yourself from buying unnecessary items
  • Have problems at home, school, or work because of your uncontrollable spending

If you’re concerned about shopping becoming a compulsion, look for support groups and therapy. Financial counseling may help you with any money problems.

Some things to keep in mind during retail therapy:

  • Track your purchases. Overspending may lead to debt, which is likely to add to your stress. 
  • Shop wisely. Don’t buy things that you don’t need. 
  • Don't buy anything. Try window shopping instead. 
  • Be aware of dangerous behaviors. Are you choosing to shop instead of getting your work done? Do you prefer to go shopping alone instead of meeting with your family and friends? It may be time to get help from a therapist. 
  • Don’t spend to relieve your boredom. It’s only a temporary distraction.
  • Find other ways to improve your mood and feel better. This includes exercising, sleeping well, and eating healthy. Find a creative project or take up a new sport to prevent boredom.