"Shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist."
So said Tammy Faye Bakker, the late gospel singer whose extravagant mane suggested a lifetime spent exorcising her own psychological demons at the hair salon. But no laughing, Tammy was onto something. A well-timed trip to the mall is a long-approved variety of psychic medicine. No matter how preposterously officious the term "retail therapy" might sound to you, research has consistently found that shopping our way out of an emotional hole really does work.
The dark side of materialism as a tonic is that shopping bags aren't a great replacement for friendships. Loneliness can make us materialistic. Feeling isolated makes us anxious, which makes us less likely to get up the energy to make and maintain connections that would make us feel less alone. So, in the hunt for immediate pleasure, some people turn to shopping. But medicating our loneliness at the mall can make us lonelier, over time, as shoppers begin to learn that it is challenging to form a meaningful relationship with a wristwatch or brag about one's children to a porcelain vase.
This vicious cycle, "the loneliness loop," has been studied by economists for more than a decade. But surely, if retail therapy can be medicine, there must be a way for shopping to make us feel less lonely, right? There is, Rik Pieters argues in a fascinating new article in the Journal of Consumer Research (pdf). But to understand how, we need to get our terms right.