Feeling Blue? Four Alternatives to Retail Therapy to Reduce Sadness

Maybe retail therapy didn’t work for her.

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

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.

  • 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!

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Jason Hull was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. He held a CFP certification from 2015 - 2021. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

10 thoughts on “Feeling Blue? Four Alternatives to Retail Therapy to Reduce Sadness

  1. I have to confess to being mildly susceptible to the shopping-for-happiness phenomenon, but have come up with a system to successfully talked myself out of new purchases (ones that would have been made just for the sake of a feeling). Here goes:

    When I’m thinking longingly about some new thing, I tell myself that I’m content. I really think about what having that item would mean, and usually it would mean approximately nothing.

    I sound like such a saint, don’t I? But although mindless shopping hasn’t created a debt crisis or anything in my case, it’s still something I struggle with, and forcing myself to remember that I was pretty content with my life before I saw the new thing-to-buy is an effective way (for me) to not buy it, if it’s not a purposeful purchase.

    1. Hey! That works quite well too, I’d imagine. It’s the feeling of a loss of control which causes sadness, and reminding yourself that you’re happy and content (and I’d throw in that you’re in control of your life) should accomplish some of the same results. You’re asking yourself if you really need that [insert shiny object here] but you’re priming yourself beforehand by thinking happy and positive thoughts. I like it!

  2. I generally use chocolate. Is there no supermarket able to deliver groceries bought online? I used it a lot when available, they weren’t the best on fruit and veg quality but overall really decent to avoid a trip to the supermarket.

    1. Pauline–

      There are some that offer paid delivery services, but none where I live. Alas, the main tenet of real estate comes back to bite me: location, location, location.

      The reason chocolate works is that it actually physiologically reduces stress. Of course, I’m not a fan of the sugar rush, so you can achieve similar (albeit not as complete) effects by gargling with sugar water.

  3. I’v never heard of retail therapy. I’ll give it a try next time I get blue; which fortunately doesn’t happen often. I have heard delicious food can turn a frown upside down! Everyone loves good food!

  4. We in the family buy what we actually need. We both come from poor families. We don’t have the luxury to shop for happiness or depression.

  5. I have a problem with retail therapy due to the mania portion of my bipolar disorder. I actually do a version of your dollar trick: I take 10 dollars to the dollar store and spend all the time I want to thoroughly go through the store and get household items, craft stuff…whatever takes my fancy. Just the act of allowing myself to shop really helps, and ten things in your cart really makes you feel satisfied without breaking the bank.

    1. Carley–

      Hey, $10 works too! Have you ever tried haggling so that you can get 11 things in your cart instead of 10? Try it next time! Don’t get disappointed if you don’t succeed the first time. Think of it as a game; furthermore, you’re learning (or improving upon) a very useful skill. I’m glad that the $10 trick works for you! Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

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