Why Does Shopping Make Me Feel Good?

Why do I love shopping so much? Sometimes I just scroll and scroll and scroll through pages of products to free my mind from whatever is occupying it. Every so often, this manic scrolling will turn into a new acquisition opportunity and just like that: renewal. Pink satin kitten heels that will contribute to my new identity as an elegant woman. Ditto that for suede mules. A cropped tweed jacket? Perfect.

These are the physical manifestations of my abandoning who I once was, or tried to be. The garments don’t even recognize that imposter student of grunge I was last year. She wore a plethora of plaid shirts and ripped jeans and leather boots. They’re all languishing on The Real Real right now.

My parents always used to tell me that things wouldn’t actually make me happy. They were the first to point out that shopping incites a high. Maybe you feel good for like, a week, but slowly and surely, the new thing becomes old. Something shinier, prettier, better arrives at market. And lo and behold: wherever you go, there you are. With your stuff. That now feels kind of dated.

We’re all familiar with this narrative, right? We’ve all been taught that stuff won’t make us happy. Big data (whatever that is), supports this theory with its assertion that millennials (that’s us!) are acquiring less, but experiencing and — keyword — enjoying more. I’ve had conversations from here until tomorrow with aspiring brand builders who are targeting a new kind of fashion customer: she who wants to own less garbage, but have more quality. One sweater, one pair of pants, a jacket — that’s it.

It’s a satisfying and relieving thought (and one that I dream about fairly often) that your closet could become a small chest of drawers replete with everything you feel like you need. But see, my approach to getting there is all wrong. Here I’m thinking about purging but essentially, purging only to reacquire. To “get it right” next time. Obtain the timeless pieces that will never go away. Achieve more stuff.

I know that I use shopping as a crutch. When I’m feeling kind of down, or just uneasy, the prospect of new stuff makes me feel like whatever the thing in question is will solve my problem. Intellectually, I know this is not true, but behaviorally, it’s a habit that I fall back on over and over again. Even right now! While writing this, I’ve already visited the Warby Parker website to consider these sunglasses, Matches for these sandals, have sent about e-mail about a Dries jacket, and I don’t even want to talk about this necklace.

But what happens when it stops working? Which, by the way, it has. I’m procrastinating right now, and that’s a different beast, but what happens when you’re pursuing something so much deeper than temporary self-satisfaction? I’m past the point of conflating consumerism with true fashion fandom (an easy mistake to make when you’ve determined you no longer want to buy shit).

This is an important distinction because admiring stuff is a big part of who I am. It is a coping mechanism that sometimes works. I am a genuine fashion fan. That a skirt, or a pair of shoes, or some ridiculous brooch could put a smile on your face when everything else might feel like it’s falling apart is special. That doesn’t mean you have to have the things, though. You can appreciate them from a distance, like art, and let them fill you up without filling up your cart, or abandoning that element of renewal associated with purchase. You can appreciate it without having to worship it.

Earlier I said that the problem with leaning on getting new stuff is that wherever you go, whatever you have, there you are with your stuff. This notion is true when you’re in the process of restoration, or self-healing, too. The difference is that you’re not running away from anything. So wherever you go, no matter what you have, there you are, with you. Point blank. End scene. Sigh of relief. Smile.

For what it’s worth I did still buy those Warby Parker sunglasses. I’m not above relapse, and for now, I’m just glad I know — I mean really, really know — that stuff is just stuff.

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; follow her on Instagram @heysuperstar.

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  • hilary

    THIS PART: “Here I’m thinking about purging but essentially, purging only to reacquire. To “get it right” next time. Obtain the timeless pieces that will never go away. Achieve more stuff.”

    Part of me is relieved to read this to know that I’m not the only one with this problem, but I’m also a bit disheartened thinking that maybe this actually is impossible. Slowly all my cheap H&M clothes are disappearing and being replaced with more expensive clothes I hope will last longer, but what if they’re not enough either? What if a year from now I want to replace those and then do, claiming that I have a better sense of my style and am replacing them with pieces that are more classic, but then a year from then the same feelings come and the cycle continues for the rest of my life?

    • It is quite possible you will always want to replace something, but it could be less and less things, because more and more of them will have become keepers yearned for. This is especially true for more expensive, higher quality clothing. Why not enjoy that? 🙂

  • me

    Several years ago I was floundering – stuck in an unfulfilling on/off relationship and a very stressful job – and tried to shop my way out of my rut.

    But I only came to that epiphany looking back some years later: after I eventually realized that all of the JCrew & Boden stuff I’d bought bought bought during that time didnt do a damn thing to fill the black holes in my sad stressful life.

    So I had to find other, more constructive ways to deal with pain/fear. Even though I dont compulsively shop anymore, I’m still working on maintaining healthier coping strategies.

    Self-awareness is a powerful thing, no ?

  • Belinda

    love this post..:) i have a shopping problem that gets my in financial trouble…the more i read this the better i feel

  • LadyLeo

    Etsy is my addiction. I love Etsy shopping and it makes me feel good to know I’m buying handcrafted and supporting a ‘mom/pop’ shop entrepreneur.

    As long as you’re not going into more debt than you can handle or spending so much that other priorities take a back seat because of it, I think it’s fine. Enjoy!

  • 💘💘💘💘💘

  • Senka

    Before reading this I was activelly contemplating purchasing yet another gray oversized coat. Very similar to one that’s on my coat hanger right now. Yes it’s soft, and pretty. And on sale (magic word). Yes it’s “me”. I don’t really change so often nor do I buy exciting stuff, because I mostly have uniform, but, still, it never prevented me from getting yet another thing. True, it’s easy to dress that way, but do I really need it, or am I just patching up other open issues in my life and in my mind, that I’m not ready to deal with. Maybe stroking a new soft coat will make me happy for a couple of hours, maybe every morning for the rest of the winter (and next) when I grab it to get dressed and have more choice, but what I really need to do is deal with what is a shopping crutch for, and the list there is long.

  • I think it’s important to realise what you’re using shopping as a crutch for. Of course it’s okay to buy things, as long as you’re not putting yourself into a grave situation with debt. It’s also important to realise as you said – stuff is just stuff. None of us are born consumers – advertising moulds and influences this kind of behaviour. I think the more you recognise this and take a step back – the easier it becomes to want to moderate this. As a crutch, it’s never ever going to be truly enjoyable, or solve what could be or become a problem.

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    an equally curious phenomenon is the grief you feel after something you want is sold out online. it just happened to me with the ongoing zara sale. a faux fur coat had been sitting in my shopping cart for a few weeks now, and i had yet to pull the trigger. it wasn’t that i needed time to reflect on the purchase, to see if i really wanted it, because i knew that i did. i guess it was moreso the fact that i thought it’d be there forever and so i took its existence for granted (in hindsight, i realize this was very dumb because clothes, unlike space and rihanna’s legs, are not infinite). when i went online and saw that the item was no more, i was genuinely shocked by how sad and reproachful i felt. i chided myself for not making the purchase when i had the chance. For wanting to save 40 bucks, because, as it turned out, financial savings do little to compensate for the hole in my capitalist heart. isn’t that crazy?! i scolded myself more after “losing” this stupid coat (that i never really had, mind you) than i ever have after doing poorly on an assignment, or for lying, or for doing anything that most would consider an actual bad thing. i’m not sure how i feel about that. intellectually, i know there is value in appreciating material, beautiful things, and it doesn’t mean i’m completely superficial, even though my instinct is to feel as much. but maybe i need to make a more concerted effort to do as you said, to realize that stuff is just stuff.

    • This happened to be recently too! Lazy Oaf had a gorgeous striped pastel puffer jacket that I felt was so ‘me’ I had to have it! It sold out :((( I’m still sad about it haha. I guess I am still me without it though :’)

  • Alison

    I have the opposite problem. Right now, I am not inspired by any of the current styles. Even when I visit other countries, it all looks the same. (Except Bolivia — beautiful, original textiles.) I’m always optimistic that MR will give me some ideas about interesting pieces that are made well.

    • Leandra Medine

      i went through a fashion dry spell earlier this year! for me it was linked a deeper, unsettling dis-ease that i was working through interpersonally. kind of like how the trees look dim when the suns not shining on them and then dazzling once the sun comes back out. i of course cant know what you’re feeling and what’s making you bored, but do know its normal, a lot of people are fashion-exhausted (we see too much of it in crappy iterations on social media!) but when you edit your feed and take a step back and only “indulge” in the sure-fire inspiration mechanisms you have in place, i think that will help.

      • Alison

        That would work, except that I don’t have Facebook, Instagram, or even a smart phone. 🙂

      • M.a.s.r.

        How am I just reading this now? Probably missed it in the absolute madness and overtaking of my life that was the holiday season.

        I feel such a sense of relief that I’m not the only one who has grown weary and downwrite deflated by the watered down “crappy iterations.” To be honest I kind of miss being under the spell because it just felt so intoxicatingly good to be blindly unaware of myself and buy, buy, buy. But I love the notion of sure-fire inspiration and look forward to figuring out what the hell that means for my closet and my increasingly aware, yet eternally consumerist soul.

    • I completely agree. Here: same. There: same. Cheap thrills: same. High-end: same.
      I want to fall in love with something, but it isn’t happening (and I must say to the current fashion: “It’s not me, it’s you”).

  • Sushee

    You’ve just opened a collective therapeutic Pandora’s box!

    For a long time I shopped to excess. All the time. Usually preoccupied by what I wanted next.
    The good side:
    1. What I wear is who I am. Shopping – figuring out what works for me, what really resonates with me helped me to capture my identity (minimalist sophistication – I ain’t got time for bs 😉). For me those years were also a process of self-actualisation.
    2.) It’s a creative process that I enjoy – discovery and selection. Colours and details and form. It gives me joy and satisfaction.

    The bad:
    1.) at a lonely and confused time in my life it distracted me and gave me a focal point. Happier now, I can see I wanted to shop the pain away and it is not a substitute for good company, fulfilling experiences.
    2.) Dopamine kicks. That’s why the overshopping. Constantly seeking that fix is self-destructive
    3.) All that money. What else could I have done with those thousands??

    I feel like having a clear understanding of my personal style drives has abnegated the need to constantly hunt. There is no longer an end game. I’m there.

  • I have an overflowing wardrobe ‘cos I just get sooo attached to clothes. I have so many t shirts that don’t even fit but they hold memories, or are of a movie I love. So even though I don’t often buy new clothes I rarely let any of them go! Some of my t shirts I’ve had since I was 14… I’m now 21… is that ridiculous? Please tell me there are others like me?!

    • Eleanor Theodorou

      Me! I’m 25 now and still finding it hard to get rid of old items of clothing, especially t-shirts, that hold sentimental value. Even when they’re falling apart and don’t particularly match my style aesthetic anymore. It’s driving me mad! I need to have a major wardrobe purge soon!

  • I just found this now, sorry I didn’t hope in then.
    I take photos. Of the things I think are ridiculous and I want to show my sister RIGHT NOW (Pancake and Sausage on a stick, Autumn scented kitty litter). Of the things I would like to own but there’s no need for it anymore (the stuffed unicorn that a kid could actually pretend to ride – damn, that’s annoying cute). Or stuff I really would buy, but can’t argue or find the cash to do it (the big yellow plastic throne that would make my life a whole lot better if I could sit in it once a day). And I put those photos in a Shutterfly calendar and print it out for my sister and myself and call it ‘Things I Did Not Buy You’.
    It’s working for me. Your mileage….

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    Consider turning old t-shirts with sentimental value into a t shirt quilt. You can actually buy a kit that will help you do it. I made one for my daughter who had t-shirts from high school and college she didn’t wear, but she didn’t want to dispose of them, either.

  • LBD

    I find that if I clear my “promotions” tab in google as soon as things arrive without opening them then I am less inclined to shop for days at a time.