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Feeling Blue? Four Alternatives to Retail Therapy to Reduce Sadness

“I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
–Tammy Faye Bakker

retail therapy

The typical maxim of write about what you know isn’t going to apply to this post. I readily confess, I have never been one to use shopping as a way to make the blues go away. I cannot empathize on this one. I hate malls. I used to love malls when I was a teenager. I could walk around them all day, looking in windows and scouring like mad for bargains. However, a lot of that was driven by the belief that I could buy clothes which made me look good, which would make me popular, and help me keep up with the teenage version of the Joneses.

Nowadays, the only shopping I do, if I can help it, is online, and it’s for a purpose. Do we need toilet paper or coffee? I hop onto Amazon and order it. If Amazon could deliver me fresh vegetables, good cuts of chicken, fish, and meat, and frozen goods, I’d use it for that purpose too. But, alas, for me, shopping is sometimes a necessity, though not one which brings me great amounts of joy.

For some people, though, shopping offers a therapeutic benefit. The term retail therapy probably brings about pejorative associations (as it did with me) about being wasteful and shallow. Yet, despite the bad press retail therapy gets, a recent study by three professors at the University of Michigan shows that going shopping and choosing to buy something actually does reduce sadness in people.

According to the experiments and the study, sadness involves a feeling of loss of control within people. Going shopping and choosing to buy something restores that sense of control, and alleviates those feelings of sadness. It’s not sufficient, according to the study, to go shopping and not buy something, since, for many people (including me), that would be the default option. Since you’re doing what you would have done anyway, not buying anything, you haven’t actually made a choice. When you don’t make a choice, you don’t restore the feeling of self-control, and you haven’t reduced sadness.

Monkey Brain must be jumping for joy at the findings of this study. There is a reason to go out and buy that 183″ flat screen TV or the closet full of Jimmy Choo shoes and he isn’t going to be perceived as the bad guy!


Well, not quite.

Yes, if you go on what the research says, then there are benefits to retail therapy. I propose some alternatives to the retail therapy which should accomplish the same benefits without putting a significant hole in your wallet.

significant hole in your wallet

  • Go onto an online shopping portal and put items in a cart, but don’t buy. According to the one of the experiments, the actual act of putting items in a cart and not buying produced the same sadness reducing effects as actually purchasing something. So, it’s not the actual purchase which produces the results, but the selection of items as if you were going to buy them that reduces sadness.
  • Go to the library and pick out a book to read. This one doesn’t have the scientific backing based on the previously cited experiments, but if the act of choosing something to take with you reduces sadness, then perhaps simply going to the library and choosing a book to check out will provide the same benefits. Plus, it won’t cost you anything, unless you get so enthralled with the book that you forget to return it in time and have to pay a fine.
  • Go to a thrift store and buy something for a charity. Shelters and food banks can always use donations, so go buy something for a charity. You’ll be doing good; you’ll be getting to choose to purchase something; it won’t cost much; you’ll feel richer since you’re giving something away; and you’ll get the tax deductions from the donation. Wins all around!
  • Go on a shopping spree with a dollar bill. If you’re going to go shopping and purchase something, then make a game out of it. See what the greatest thing you can purchase for $1 is. Want something that’s more than a dollar? You’d better pull out those negotiating skills and haggle!

Yes, if you’re feeling blue, then, according to the previously cited study, going out and buying a 183” flat screen TV or that closet full of Jimmy Choo shoes will reduce your sadness. It might make you more sad later when you realize that you just spent a wad of hard earned cash to get that not-so-blue feeling.

So, next time you’re feeling down, take the alternative approach to retail therapy. It may make you just as happy (or not sad), and won’t send your wallet into a deep depression.

Have you ever used retail therapy to feel better? What happened? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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