Study Finds 'Retail Therapy' Actually Works

A customer makes a transaction at an American Eagle Outfitters Inc. store in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, March 6, 2013. American Eagle reported adjusted fiscal year 2012 earnings for the 53 weeks ended February 2, 2013 of $1.39 per share, a 43% increase from fiscal year 2011 adjusted earnings. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ever find yourself hitting the mall or clicking around on eBay to cheer yourself up after a bad day? A new study suggests that so-called "retail therapy" actually has real psychological benefits.

Two professors and a PhD student at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business set out to find out why buying stuff tends to cheer us up. In one experiment, the researchers gathered 45 female undergraduates, showed them a movie clip of a bullying incident, gave them the option of buying a snack, then asked how they felt. Those who bought a snack said they felt better than those who skipped the snack.

In another test, subjects viewed another depressing clip, and were then randomly assigned one of two simulated shopping scenarios. The group that had more of an opportunity to choose the products they liked were found to be happier after 'shopping.'

The first test suggests that buying something does indeed lift your spirits. And the second suggests a real explanation for why that might be the case: There's something about the act of choosing that makes you feel better.

"When it comes to alleviating sadness, actively choosing between products is essential, even if those choices are hypothetical," said professor Scott Rick in a press release announcing the results. "Shopping is a natural, easy vehicle for choice. There are other situations that afford opportunities to choose and restore personal control, but they may be less tempting and harder to find than the mall."

That doesn't mean that retail therapy is necessarily healthy -- racking up credit card debt every time you have a bad day could very well lead to even more bad days down the line.

But as Rick notes, the participants in that second study weren't actually buying anything -- it was a simulated shopping scenario -- yet they felt cheered-up all the same. That, he says, suggests that some kind of "imaginary shopping" might be your best bet.

So next time you're in a lousy mood, click around on Amazon for a bit and add some stuff to your shopping cart -- just don't click "buy" until you've had a chance to look at your budget with a clear head.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.