Shopping As Therapy: Good Health Comes In Small Packages

"Certainly, we're all aware of how shopping means different things to different people at different times," writes author Paco Underhill in his book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.

Underhill is a unique researcher who, for almost 20 years, has used the tools of the anthropologist to study people in retail environments. "We use shopping as therapy, reward, bribery, pastime, as an excuse to get out of the house, as a way to troll for potential loved ones, as entertainment, as a form of education or even worship, as a way to kill time," he says. As Underhill's studies have made clear, shopping meets a variety of needs.


"I love to take my favorite catalogs, after they arrive in the mail, and curl up in bed for an hour or two before I go to sleep. I turn down pages with items I like on them, imagining what it would be like to own them," says one woman from Rochester, New York.

"Buying stuff for the grandchildren gives me a new lease on life," says a grandmother in Fairfax, Virginia.

"I remember going to the local variety store with my mom. She would buy stuff we didn't really need, little things...a little reward system against the annoyances/disturbances of life," recalls a keenly perceptive daughter.

Shopping Lifts Spirits

Whatever the motivator, shopping, in contrast to buying, lifts our spirits. It makes us feel better about ourselves and our place in the universe. It is a form of therapy. It is good to occasionally reward or affirm yourself with a purchase. Shopping is an easy way to assert self-worth, one of the simplest ways, says Judith Mueller, executive director of the internationally known resource, The Women's Center in Vienna, Virginia.

A classic example is the purchase of bath salts and perfumed oils, the ingredients of a personally pampering and perhaps luxurious spa experience. It takes some thought. It's affordable and there is an investment of time, Mueller explains. All the steps are important.


Shopping As Therapy (<i>cont'd</i>)

Purchases require the processing of information in order to make a selection. Women possess certain innate skills. While men are the hunters, women are the gatherers, says Mary Symmes, a licensed social worker who specializes in women's issues. "Discrimination is built in, the ability to scan, analyze and make choices. Women tend to spend money to improve their environment, to add some quality to their life. It is part of self-care, direct self-care."

American psychologist Abraham Maslow has listed human motivation in the order of importance as physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualization needs. Symmes confirms that shopping fills some of those self-actualization needs.


"Women experience pleasure and power in being able to go out and get what they need," Symmes says. For instance, stocking the larder with groceries results in satisfaction about you as a provider. Clothes shopping can meet basic needs as well as carry a secondary value, such as creativity.

"Women can be said to go into an altered state where they are inspired by colors and combinations," Symmes says. "We can be imaginative."

Beyond the basic needs shopping fulfills are a host of others that can be even more rewarding and self-affirming. The purchase of a book may carry with it a validation of your intellect. The acquisition of a painting can demonstrate your interest in the arts and, in addition, provide a demonstration of your unique taste. Buying a new camera may result in self-actualization, the affirmation of your inner world: "I am a creative person."

Shopping as Communal Activity

Shopping is also an activity that allows women to connect with one another. Underhill's studies show that when two women shop together, they invest more of their time in the actual process of shopping. It becomes a communal affair.

Here are his statistics from a study performed at a national housewares chain:

  • Time spent by a woman shopping with a female companion: 8 minutes, 15 seconds
  • By a woman shopping with children: 7 minutes, 19 seconds
  • By a woman shopping alone: 5 minutes, 2 seconds
  • By a woman shopping with a man: 4 minutes, 41 seconds.


Shopping As Therapy (<i>cont'd</i>)

"When two women shop together, they talk, advise, suggest and consult to their heart's content, hence the long time in the store," Underhill concludes. It's a social activity that can result in bonding. Often there is a healthy cross-fertilization of ideas. When shopping is wrapped around a meal, there's time for disclosure. Women tend to boost each other's egos in this environment, making the activity even more positive, and pleasurable.

Buying gifts is another way that women connect through shopping, whether the gift is for themselves or others. "I bought three oil paintings by artist Pat West, one very large called 'Virginia Rain' and two small, 'Monterey Coast' and 'Hawaii at Night.' They are places that I love, and they currently hang in my bedroom where I can enjoy them," says Carol who has family in all three locations.


Seeking and finding just the right items for you, family members and friends is a pleasure-filled experience. Women often envision a wide range of possibilities — comfort, delight, or perhaps knowledge — that the gift is meant to provide, often investing large amounts of time making their choices.

Although we've all heard of compulsive shoppers who do serious damage to their bank accounts, most of us shop in moderation. We go to the market to fill basic needs: food, shelter and clothing. We go too to feel better about ourselves by doing something concrete: buying a suit that helps us project a professional image and ace tomorrow's job interview; selecting postcards so we feel more connected to distant relatives and friends; or buying a vacation that will restore our very souls.

Joseph Campbell said, "Money is congealed energy, and releasing it releases life's possibilities." Today's women have more buying power than any time in past history. And many of them are really releasing lots of possibilities. Shopping in its many forms offers almost endless scenarios for enjoyment and self-realization. For the women who experience its most positive effects, shopping is therapy.