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Deconstructing Retail Therapy: Why It’s Just Not a Real Thing

We’re guessing that whether you personally have said it or not, you’ve heard the words “retail therapy” many times in your life. Increasingly, the answer myth to feeling blue or getting bad news is to dull the pain or spike the happy high by buying “stuff.” Whether this is something that you personally do or whether you know people who do it, we’re going to take some time today to explain why retail therapy simply isn’t a thing that exists. Spoiler alert: we’ll actually end by showing that retail therapy is more like self-medicating with drugs or alcohol than it is actual therapy. Sound like a harsh assessment? We promise you, while it may seem harsh, it’s ultimately true. Read on for our take about why retail therapy is a myth that could actually be hurting those who partake in it more than helping them.

Let’s Begin From a Place of Defining and Understanding Therapy

Merriam-Webster defines therapy as the treatment of physical or mental illness. Yes, it’s a short and sweet definition. But it’s also honestly a short and sweet concept to understand. The key word that we need for you to take away from this definition is “treatment.” It’s not temporary pain relief, diversion or masking. It’s treatment. The end goal of therapy is either to heal people of what ails them or guide them in learning a way to live with, manage and control either their mental or physical illness. It is a process, not an event and it has a desired outcome.

At Base, Retail Therapy Meets None of the Basic Definition Requirements of Therapy

The easiest way to launch this conversation is to point out that, at the most basic level, referring to retail therapy as “therapy” is just an incorrect use of the word. Therapy is meant to heal, cure or manage something. But “retail therapy” is simply meant to make you temporarily feel better from whatever is ailing you. That’s just not therapy. And it’s not surprising that it’s not therapy because “stuff’ can’t actually make you happier and healthier, period.

What’s Actually Happening When You Participate in “Retail Therapy?”

But you (or people you know) seem to truly feel better after “retail therapy.” Why is that, if it’s not a real thing? Well, it’s the same reason that you would feel better if you got high. Because retail therapy actually produces a high that just perpetuates the cycle. We need to back up a little bit though and mention that all of this begins with the concept of consumer addiction and with the thoroughly modern indoctrination that “stuff” can impact emotion.

Think outside of the box of retail therapy as a concept for a moment and think solely about your relationship with “stuff.” Do you feel happy when you buy something new? We don’t mean do you feel proud if you saved for an item and then accomplished the goal of purchasing it. We mean do you actually sense a shift in mood and feel happy when you hold an item that you just purchased in your hands? We would be surprised if, after thinking about this, you didn’t admit that it happens at least sometimes. Over the years, and we mean many years, the industrial consumer machine has worked hard to get you to associate mental and emotional uplift with stuff. The process is too complex to completely lay out in this article, but you can get an idea of it just by browsing some online advertisements or some television commercials. How happy do people look when purchasing something? How much are you made to feel that your life will be better if you buy item X or item Y? Are these thoughts that exist in your head? Unless you’ve been working to combat them for a very long time, they almost certainly are. You would be happier with a new purse or pair of shoes! This is the essential thread of western mass consumerism.

The Problem Is … You Will Be Happier. For a Moment.

According to Ruth Engs, an Applied Health Sciences professor at Indiana University, shopping can actually release endorphins and dopamine in your brain. These hormones and compounds do create a temporary sensation or “high” of happiness. No matter what was making you feel depressed or sad, that temporary and misleading shopping high will overwrite it and you will feel better but not satisfied. The problem, of course, is that just like any high, that feeling of happiness is very temporary.  It doesn’t address the root of someone’s unhappiness and in a brief period of time you’ll simply return to the unhappy state. In short, there is no therapy involved. You haven’t really done anything to treat the core of mental or emotional distress.

What You Have Done, Basically, Is Taken a Drug

What else produces dopamine and endorphins? Drugs. Some alcohols. Running and extreme physical exercise. All things that people get addicted to. Which is also what happens when you begin to use “retail therapy” (or, more accurately, retail self-medication) to ease woes. Consumer and shopping addiction of whole cultures is a very real thing in the western world (and encroaching elsewhere). It doesn’t ultimately make you happy, much like those other things that we just mentioned won’t make you happy for longer than it takes the endorphin and dopamine levels to return to normal.  You’ll feel happy for a while. Then you won’t.

Do You Actually Need Therapy?

That’s a question that only you can answer. And we encourage you to think about it. We also encourage you to think about ways that you could give yourself a pick-me-up or happiness spike that don’t involve buying “stuff” or falling victim to society’s addictive consumerism. We’d like to think we’ve given you plenty of advice on how to do that!

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Photo Credit: Peter Prehn via Flickr

By |2017-08-29T12:49:05+00:00October 12th, 2016|Becoming a Postconsumer, Buy Less, Consumerism, Stress and Self Help, Stress Reduction|Comments Off on Deconstructing Retail Therapy: Why It’s Just Not a Real Thing