Money Can Buy You Happiness (Sort of)

Text by Lian Nami Buan

There’s no better cure for heartache than a shopping spree – or so we tell ourselves. But psychological research reveals that there may be some truth to the myth of retail therapy.

It’s a blurry Saturday, the 20th of all the many blurry Saturdays that had gone by, and you find yourself inside a clothing store. That dress has your name on it. It’s a little expensive and it’s not on your budget, what do you do?

I suggest you buy it.

Retail therapy may be legitimate and not just some excuse you tell yourself when you’ve gone overboard trying to cheer yourself up.

There is no biology yet that can explain why people turn to shopping for happiness, but there are studies which suggest that while the effect is all in the mind, it’s still an effect nonetheless.

For example, research from the University of Michigan implies that it is not the product that makes a person happy; it’s the act of choosing the product that does. In an article published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers said that “sad” shoppers feel that they have lost a sense of personal control in their life and shopping helps restore that. Moreover, the study suggests that the repetition of this activity boosts a person’s downcast mood. In effect, retail therapy feels like you are taking back the reigns on a small portion of your life (especially after a series of heartbreaks).

The study also said that shoppers who actually bought something were three times less sad compared to those who only browsed. Rightly so, because how can you feel a sense of control if you look at something you won’t have eventually? So when you do go on retail therapy, make sure to only browse in stores where you can afford to buy something. There’s no therapeutic value in just ending up looking at things you want that you won’t be able to have anyway.

Believe it, achieve it

Dr. Kit Yarrow of Golden Gate University Psychology Department said shopping can be a form of therapeutic visualization. She used the example of a research respondent, a 39-year-old single entrepreneur who had built a closet made for long dresses. The man said that maybe if he builds a closet, the right woman will come along.

It’s a state of mind that enables a person to visualize a desired outcome. If you’ve lost a job, buy office clothing and maybe the job offer will follow, and so on. Visualization has been proven effective, particularly by the many athletes who have said they imagined themselves making the winning shot of the game, and later, really doing so.

This effect is especially evident in people who are anxious about one, getting married, and two, having a baby. They are two of life’s greatest events, and the transition to both can be really overwhelming.

For example, a loss of confidence in an expectant mother can be cured by buying baby supplies – it sort of tells them they know what they’re doing. Dr. Yarrow calls this “easing transitions” – finding a product that “inspires self-confidence and a sense of mastery.”

If you’re happy and you know it… But there’s a grim angle to this, as suggested by a paper from the European School of Management and Technology. Their researchers said, “It’s not just someone’s emotional state that matters, but their level of certainty about their emotions.”

When someone is sad, they’re more likely to shop when they are uncertain, in the hope that they can still improve how they feel. When someone is happy, they’re more likely to shop when they are certain, in order to sustain the high spirits.

What does this mean? This insight seems to suggest that when you are sad and you are sure that you’re really lonely, no amount of shopping can make you happy because you’re certain of your emotion – there is no room for possibility of happiness. And when you’re happy and you shop, you have to be sure that you really are happy, or else shopping will highlight that you may not be completely content.

Does this mean hopeless cases really are hopeless? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they need another form of therapy, the real kind. But if we chalk it up to statistics, we will see that the possibilities of retail therapy magnify in numbers: 62 percent of American Shoppers purchased something to cheer themselves up and another 28 percent purchased as a form of celebration, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing.

Another survey conducted by the TNS Global found that 52 percent of Americans (64 percent of women and 40 percent of men) engage in retail therapy to improve one’s moods.

With or without these studies, shopping to be happy is and continuously being done by a large number of people. The studies just tell you you’re not alone and that it’s not completely materialistic of you to think you can buy happiness. The truth is, you can’t, but you may just be able to buy a fragment of it for a fraction of time. And if you have the money, why not?

Just remember that shopping can also be a vice, and like all vices, it must be done in moderation – that is to say, wisely and rationally.

So, go buy that dress. But make sure it looks perfect on you (and that you can actually afford it!). Remember, shopping is an instant source of happiness, but buyer’s remorse can just as quickly take that joy away.



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