Why Does Spending Cheer You Up? How to Break That Connection.

Retail therapy is a real thing. I’ve felt it, and most likely you’ve felt it, too.

You’re in a down mood. You’re unhappy about some aspect of your life, or perhaps just feeling glum all over. Your solution? You go buy something. In my case, I’m very likely to go to a bookstore or a board game store. Others might head to a clothing store or a hardware store or an electronics store.

You find something that looks fun and you buy it. The whole process feels like a big rush and it really does elevate your mood.

Not too long afterwards, however, the sad mood creeps back in. You’re still unhappy about some aspect of your life, or still in a somewhat down mood.

That doesn’t change the fact that, for a while, you felt good. Knowing that the trick works, at least for a while, is why we often turn back to it.

But why does it work? There are actually a few documented reasons for that.

The big one is that retail therapy gives us a sense of choice and control that we perhaps don’t have in other areas of our lives. In the paper The Benefits of Retail Therapy: Making Purchase Decisions Reduces Residual Sadness, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014, the authors, Scott Rick, Beatriz Pereira, and Katherine Burson, directly connect the positive feelings we get from buying something to a sense of a restoration of personal control in our life. It’s not what we’re buying so much as the sense of control that comes from being able to choose amongst items and select one (or more) for ourselves.

Another big factor is the “promise” of happiness. Many products are promoted and advertised as bringing happiness into your life or solving some sort of problem you have. It’ll make you seem more attractive! It’ll help you take on some task that you don’t enjoy! It’ll relieve your stress! Often, we are thinking not of the transaction itself, but of the positive result we hope to get from whatever it is we’re buying, which often turns out to not be quite as amazing as we thought.

Those two things, over the course of many years, creates a mental connection for us that connects buying things – particularly fun and unnecessary things – to a burst of happiness. We feel a sense of control in those moments, and we’re envisioning this wonderful outcome, and it just feels so good.

The problem, of course, is that it’s expensive, and it usually doesn’t last. We quickly find ourselves right back where we started, except with less money than before.

Before we continue, let’s make it absolutely clear that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to solve sadness in the short term. That is a perfectly fine thing to do. Pairing it with plans for solving that feeling over the long run is even better. The key thing we’re examining here is how to solve unhappiness in the short term without resorting to retail therapy.

The Need for Choice and Control

One of the things that drives people toward “retail therapy” is the sense that we don’t have control and choice in other aspects of our lives, and the act of shopping gives us that sense of control and choice. Naturally, one powerful solution to this problem is to cultivate the presence of choice and control in our lives. We do this by downsizing elements of our life where we lack choice and control and upsizing elements of our life where we do have choice and control.

There are a lot of tactics for doing this. Here are seven that really work.

Work on personal relationships. Frustrating relationships in our lives can make us feel like we lack control and choice. The truth is that we can’t control what other people think or do, no matter how much we try or no matter how much we want to.

One way to reduce the sense of a life without control or choice is to step back from controlling relationships. If you have relationships with people who make you feel out of control or bring about feelings of intense sadness, step back from those relationships as much as you can. Those types of relationships tend to cultivate a very strong sense of being out of control of one’s own life, and that can often encourage retail therapy as a quick fix to feel better.

Stop worrying about the past. Many people get stuck in a pattern of worrying about the past, about relationships left unbuilt and opportunities left undone and mistakes that seem to loom large. While reflection on the past can be useful for informing your choices today and for reminiscence to build on relationships, that’s largely where the usefulness ends. In other words, the past cannot be changed, so don’t worry about it. Focus instead on what you can do today to make the path forward better.

So, let’s say you feel a great deal of shame about a series of mistakes you made in the past and you feel that they have shaped the circumstances of your life. You can’t get those past mistakes out of your head. Rather than letting those past mistakes control you, look at what you have now and think in terms of what you can do with the assets and opportunities you have right now to build a better life going forward. Looking at what happened five years ago won’t make your life five years from now any better.

Don’t worry about the future, either. Just as it is easy to get lost worrying about the past, it’s also easy to get lost worrying about what might happen in the future. It’s easy to foresee a lot of bad outcomes to things in your life and to envision what might go wrong. Rather than worrying about them, instead think about what you can do right now – the part of your life that’s actually under your control – to reduce the impact of that negative event.

For example, if you’re worried about getting fired, what can you do right now to cement your job? What can you do right now to improve your resume? Those are things you can control, whereas the decision of an employer isn’t something you can control. Focus on what you can control in this scenario and don’t worry about what you can’t.

Take control of your health. If you don’t feel as well as you otherwise could, you can sometimes feel trapped by your own body or mind, and that lack of a sense of control over simply feeling healthy can steer you down the road of retail therapy. While there are undoubtedly physical and mental maladies that you can’t control, there are many things that you can control.

Start by doing something – anything – that will move you in the direction of feeling better. Go on a walk. Do something that puts you out of breath. Make a really healthy supper. Show yourself that you can do those things. Then do it again. And again. And again. You control those choices.

Get a really good night of sleep. One big element of spending money to cheer oneself up is that it’s often the output of a depleted self-control aspect of your mind. You have only so much capacity for controlling your behavior and choices, a capacity you deplete throughout the day and recharge while sleeping.

Thus, one of the effects of a lack of sleep is a depleted sense of self-control. As that self-control declines, we operate more and more on instinct and impulse, which often leads to bad results.

The solution? Sleep, and plenty of it. Strive to get a good night of sleep, tonight and every night.

Go for a walk in nature. The concept of “forest bathing” – simply walking in a forest or other natural setting for a while – is a hot idea these days, but there’s a deep historical tradition to it as well. Think of books like Walden, for example, that touched upon this same phenomena 150 years ago.

Here’s the thing: simply walking in nature has a clear calming effect and a minor cheering effect on our minds and bodies. The choice to do so is in itself powerful, as this type of an experience is a direct replacement for retail therapy. Go for a walk in the woods instead of a walk through the racks at Nieman Marcus.

Have a repertoire of “little happiness” activities. Everyone has little things in their lives that bring them a burst of happiness. Identify ones that click well for you and have a repertoire of them on hand whenever you start feeling glum and are thinking about buying something for that cheering effect.

For me, for example, I usually have a small treat or two in the fridge that I save for glum moments (like a Baby Bel disc of cheese or a bottle of Spring Grove soda). I play a computer game for a little while, or I read a book, or I listen to some uptempo music that I love. I know I can draw on those things when a momentary cloud passes through my life.

The Desire for Lasting Happiness

Those earlier steps are effective in terms of things you can do rather quickly to elevate your mood without having to resort to buying things, but it is lasting happiness that really puts a stake in the heart of retail therapy. If you already have a lot of sources of joy in your life that you’ve already cultivated, retail therapy becomes a needless thing.

Here are five things you can do to cultivate a life that consistently generates joy on its own.

Maintain positive relationships and develop new ones. It takes a lot longer to build up a relationship than it does to back away from one, but the effort in building up a positive relationship is well worth it. Having a friend that actually listens to you and wants to be a positive part of your life is invaluable.

You can start by making it your goal to participate in events that line up with your interests in your community. Find individual people who seem to be passionate and caring and work to establish friendships, one at a time. Often, it won’t work; sometimes, it’ll work just fine. Don’t sweat connections that don’t work out and relish the ones that do. Having positive relationships in your life is well worth trying to meet a lot of people and having few real connections – those few connections are the ones that matter.

Incorporate daily meditative and reflective practices. Daily meditation is something that has helped me a ton with mild anxiety and made me feel far more in control of my life, but it doesn’t help immediately. It takes a lot of repeated practice – you have to do it every day for a while and then some of the anxiety slowly melts away and you slowly start to feel more in control of things. This is particularly true if you’re often distracted.

A daily reflective practice, whether it’s formally writing in a journal or simply a pattern of thinking about your day as you’re getting ready for bed, can also help you feel more in control of things. Ask yourself what went well and what you did to cause that to happen. Ask yourself what didn’t go well and what you can do better in the future to reduce the chances of that happening. Both questions are valuable and can lead to some really great insights, ones that make you feel more in control of your life over time. Much like meditation, this isn’t instant magic, but it builds over time into something powerful.

Choose a more active lifestyle. While things like going for a walk and moving around more are good short term mood lifters, the benefits become more sustainable and more powerful if you choose them every day. Set a reasonable fitness goal for yourself, like simply taking 10,000 steps a day, and work on hitting that for an extended period of time.

What you’ll find is that this also lifts your mood subtly over a long period of time, washing away some of that need for retail therapy to feel good. You just largely feel good – content with the state of your life. It’s not an immediate thing and it’s not overwhelming, but it is there. It’s subtle because it creeps in over time.

Set challenging – but not impossible – goals for yourself, and work toward them daily. While we’re talking about daily goals, having a few strong daily goals and striving to hit them day after day is a great way to feel more in control of your life.

Strive to spend 30 minutes reading something challenging every day with a goal of reading 20 meaningful books in a year. Strive to go on a 30 minute walk every day with a goal of walking 500 miles this year. Strive to lose one pound a week for the next six months (that’s 26 pounds, my friend) by counting calories. Those are all challenging but nowhere near impossible goals.

Goals like this feel good because of both the daily success and the realization near the end that you have in fact climbed this mountain and succeeded at something big. Plus, having a goal in front of you reveals that you do have choices in terms of how you spend time. You can choose to turn off the television or the web browser and just read a book.

Downgrade the digital distractions and live more in the moment. Digital devices are among the most intrusive things in our lives. Checking them becomes almost impulsive, and it can make it feel very hard to stay focused on anything. At times, it can almost make you feel out of control – you must check your phone!

Resolve this by including significant periods in your life where you completely shut off digital distractions. I sometimes will shut off my phone entirely and put it in a drawer for an entire day. I’ve started turning off my computer and leaving it off so that I can’t just sit down at it at any given moment and start surfing. This has helped greatly with my ability to focus, and in doing so makes me feel more in control of my daily life.

Breaking the Chain

A final strategy that makes a lot of sense is to attack retail therapy head on and try to eliminate it directly from your toolset of techniques for bringing temporary happiness. There’s nothing wrong with that feeling, of course, but spending money is an extremely disadvantageous way to do it.

Here are four strategies for directly taking on spending as a crutch for happiness.

Use a “30-day challenge” to your benefit. Simply choose to spend the next 30 days buying nothing but household essentials. Spend those days enjoying the things you already have and establishing some of the practices above in your newfound spare time. Try new techniques for lifting your mood in the short term rather than relying on retail therapy.

You may just find that it’s not nearly as hard as you think and though you may come back to retail therapy down the road, it doesn’t have the same draw that it once had.

Re-evaluate relationships that encourage retail therapy. If you have friends whose solution to everything is to go shopping and buy stuff, spend some time considering whether or not that is a relationship that is bringing a net positive into your life. Is that person a shopping addict?

While it can be hard to dial down relationships, if such relationships are encouraging behavior in you that you dislike, you owe it to yourself to either address that friend directly or to dial down that friendship (preferably the former, but I know it can be hard). Shopping with a friend is not the solution to life’s problems, and a friend that encourages that behavior is damaging to your pocketbook and damaging to your toolset of dealing with problems.

Take control of your own daily stress levels with a healthier daily routine. Cut out unhealthy things you do on a daily basis, like eat unhealthy foods or drink to excess or smoke, and adopt some of the healthier routines described above, like going on more walks and eating healthier and lower calorie foods. Cut out aspects of your routine that make you feel stressed out and add more things that leave you feeling deeply fulfilled.

Simply finding ways to keep your stress level lower makes you less prone to using easy crutches to quickly lift your mood and hide stress, which is a big factor in why people rely on spending to cheer them up. They’re stressed, and it’s easy. If you can melt away some of that stress, you take away this avenue.

Make shopping more inconvenient. A final tool in your repertoire is to simply make it harder to shop. Stop carrying your credit cards with you everywhere – instead, just carry a small amount of cash for emergencies. Delete your credit card number from your online accounts so you can’t make purchases nearly as easily. Find a new commute that doesn’t take you by endless stores. Delete e-commerce bookmarks and histories from your web browser.

All of those steps add an extra roadblock to shopping, and those extra roadblocks can be just enough for you to realize that you’re using shopping as an emotional crutch.

Final Thoughts

Using spending as a tool to elevate your mood is a powerful mechanism for coping with the daily stresses of modern life, and the easy availability of online retail and the ease of use of credit cards makes it all so easy, too.

However, if you take actions to address both the cause of unhappiness and the actual mechanism of using shopping as a quick mood elevator, you’ll find yourself wasting a lot less money on unimportant things and drawing natural happiness from other areas of your life.

Good luck!