Editorial Policy

Shopping to cure loneliness? It may actually work

Kristin McGrath

August 9, 2013

Ever turned to retail therapy to cure a bout of loneliness? If you fit the right personality profile, it may be a pretty effective cure, new research says.

The most expensive article of clothing in my closet was purchased right after I moved to a new city. With no local friends yet and a week left until I started school and a part-time job, I was lonely.

While browsing Facebook, I saw an ad featuring a pretty dress. Its bright colors cheered me up, and I bought it. It was almost $200.

It was probably not the most financially healthy thing I’ve ever done. But did this sudden burst of materialism send me spiraling into more loneliness and more loneliness-fueled purchases? Nah. It was a pretty dress, I like shopping for clothes and I enjoyed wearing the dress (and still do).

This memory resurfaced while I was reading an interesting new study on the relationship between loneliness and shopping, featured in the Journal of Consumer Research. The author, Rik Pieters of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, studied 2,500 consumers for six years. Traditional wisdom shared by experts and the general public alike, he writes in the report, says that shopping to soothe your loneliness will only make you lonelier — and then fuel more shopping. Yet, the research found that this wasn’t always the case.

Those who described themselves as missing company or feeling socially excluded (lonely) were indeed more likely to pursue material possessions (aka shop). Yet whether their lonely shopping sprees begat more loneliness depended on one crucial factor: Their attitudes toward shopping. Those who viewed possessions as status symbols got lonelier after making purchases. Yet those who simply enjoyed shopping got less lonely.

In other words, sometimes a new outfit can be just the temporary fix you need to feel less alone. You just have to know enough about your shopping mindset going in. Men need to be a bit more careful, the study found, as they’re more likely to attach more status to their belongings. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to simply view new possessions as “material mirth.” This study isn’t the first piece of research that’s shown that spending money, under certain circumstances, can up your happiness.  In a June 2013 interview for Scientific American, Michael Norton and Elizabeth Dunn (co-authors) of “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” discuss how buying experiences (cooking lessons, vacations and nights out) can boost your mood.

These findings have some interesting implications for personal finance advice. As Pieters points out in the report, many experts recommend “dematerializing” as a way reset your emotions and prevent a spending spree — banishing glossy fashion magazines, unplugging the television and staying away from the mall. But this research suggests that these diversions can be a relatively harmless pick-me-up for many. Or, as Sigmund Freud might have said, sometimes a dress is just a dress.