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Buying a new me – could retail therapy hold the secret to happiness?

New Year, new you! I keep on seeing this phrase all over the internet and in print media. The majority of the time it is paired with an offer to have you buy something AMAAAAZING that will make you feel happier, more beautiful, healthier and thinner! Such a promise is hard to ignore, and that is part of the power of retail therapy, but does it work? Is feeling happier and creating a new you really as simple as buying a few new things? The answer will surprise you…

Does retail therapy work?

The short answer is yes. Yes, buying new things leads to greater perceived happiness and an increased sense of control in the short-term. According to a study conducted at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business that came out in the Spring of 2013, making a purchase led to a triple boost in happiness and a greater sense of control (up to 40 times greater) in their subjects. The study looked at both buying and browsing and the conclusions they drew based on their findings were a bit more sophisticated than that, but the general conclusions remained. Unsurprisingly, these findings got major media attention and led to such fabulous headlines as Feeling sad? Then hit the shops… it really works! Buying something makes people three times happier, and Shop ‘Til You Drop: Retail Therapy Works, and that is all the excuse any of us need to pull out our credit cards.

Does that mean that buying new things actually makes you happier? No, it’s a short-term fix, like drinking a bit too much or getting high. Neurologically, both types of actions are actually quite similar; they lead to natural endorphin and dopamine boosts that create a short-term sense of “ahhh…life is good,” but do absolutely nothing for the underlying reasons for your unhappiness. That won’t stop retailers and media outlets (who depend on advertising) from encouraging retail therapy as a viable way to be happier, and that is a big problem.

But, new is better!


 This belief that “new is better” is so powerful that people will throw money at anything they believe will buy them happiness. Unfortunately, the neurological response I refer to in the previous paragraph is a huge reinforcement for these behaviors. The problem is that unless our shopper is buying  A Personalized Guide to Understanding Who I Am, (which might be up for grabs somewhere out there) they are no closer to feeling fulfilled at the end of a day of shopping than they were that morning when they woke-up. Although they might make us feel better in the short term, if these purchases weren’t directly related to a well thought out, specific plan or goal associated with improving happiness, they won’t fix issues with life satisfaction. Why is that?

Well, like I said earlier, buying things is fun, but it rarely addresses the underlying reasons why we feel dissatisfied with life. To begin to solve the “happiness”** question you first have to be able to identify what you personally want and need in your life to be satisfied. Then you need to understand how your behaviors and choice either hinder or help you achieve those things.  With those two major pieces of information the sky is the limit, you can craft a life that reflects who you are, and that will buy you fulfillment.

So no more shopping?

I’m not saying to give up retail therapy completely, if you want a short term boost in mood, if you have a little red dress you’ve been eying for some time, go for it, you’ll feel good, for a little while at least. But if you are trying to improve you satisfaction with life, or trying to motivate yourself to follow through on a goal you have set for yourself don’t go buying a ton of stuff, it won’t work. Don’t believe me? I guarantee you know someone who has a garage full of sports equipment that was supposed to help them get healthier, a crafter who has a room packed with the latest materials to motivate them to finish the project they started last year, a friend who has every self-help and motivational book in print waiting to inspire them, or someone who has bought one infomercial after another of “stuff” to make them happier. That someone might even be you… has it worked?

Have you ever purchased somthing that has made and kept you happy? Share your story with us here.

Alessandra Wall, Ph.D.

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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