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Shopping is hard (Photo: Getty Images)
Shopping is hard (Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyJanuary 15, 2019

The retail therapy myth: why shopping doesn’t make you any happier

Shopping is hard (Photo: Getty Images)
Shopping is hard (Photo: Getty Images)

The decluttering phenomenon has revealed some dark truths about people’s need to fill the void with things. 

Do you ever have moments when you suddenly see something that’s been sitting in front of you your whole life in a completely different way? That unsettling, swooshy mixed up feeling of thinking, “hang on a dang second. What?” before looking back and going, “What in the bejeebus. Did that just happen?” You start questioning everything, and the hole just keeps getting deeper, weirder, and twistier until you bash into a rock of realisation – this is some bullshit.

I was watching Marie Kondo’s show, the one that’s sparked a beautiful cascade of tidying throughout the land, when an ‘empty nester’ was confronted with an obscenely huge pile of clothing, many unworn with tags. She responded with something that made me hit rewind faster than a developer invades a virgin rainforest. Our hapless empty nester let it all hang out.

“For me, clothes are a passion, an obsession, recreation. Retail therapy is definitely something I am guilty of using, and y’know, whenever Ron and I would fight, shopping was a diversion. It was a way to, y’know, just calm down, de-stress, um, maybe y’know, hit Ron where it hurts in his pocket book.”

Marie Kondo’s new show reveals some dark truths

Let me get this right, she just admitted, on camera, that she spite-buys when she is annoyed at her husband. That she takes pleasure in flat out wasting the money he’s worked hard to bring home. Has this ordinary, well-heeled housewife just unwittingly summed up everything wrong with a socially acceptable form of ‘therapy’ that literally adds nothing of value to our lives or fixes a thing?

We can’t vilify her (though it is tempting) because she is one of millions of unknowing victims of a ‘therapy’ that adds to the mountains of crap filling up our homes and decreases the money we have in our pockets without ever filling the hole in our souls.

Memes are a great way to put your finger on the pulse of public mentality. Google ‘retail therapy memes’ and you’ll be greeted by cheerful, cute women shopping and smiling with tag-lines such as: “When the going gets tough, the tough get shopping” “The best therapy is retail therapy” “Life isn’t perfect but your outfit can be” “Because sometimes you have to say screw you, I’m worth it” Or this old chestnut: “My husband says he is going to leave me if I don’t stop shopping. I’m going to miss that man.”

I can’t speak for men, but the whole retail ‘therapy’ thing seems to apply mostly to women. The general consensus portrayed on media and in society is that ‘retail therapy’ is a valid outlet for feminine need. We feel entitled to it because we are the ones that are supposed to have a lovely, clean, welcoming, pretty home and perfect physical appearance. We carry the most weight, so why shouldn’t we treat ourselves?

The ability to soothe our troubled souls with shopping, can feel like one of the only consolation prizes of being stuck in a domestic role. Retail ‘therapy’ is a popular cultural activity that is defended, even cherished. This is a fact that advertisers, manufacturers and companies are more than happy to exploit in a variety of clever ways. Retail therapy has become a status symbol, an empowering act that strong, confident women are entitled to indulge in.

But people don’t mindlessly shop because they are happy. People who have interests or hobbies or fulfilling relationships with friends and family tend not to spend valuable time or money wandering listlessly around malls and boutique shopping centres. Lonely, unfulfilled people with time on their hands and unmet needs shop to make themselves ‘feel better’.

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I’m not attacking women, or men, or the people whose job it is to sell or make things. Unfulfilled people meeting a need using the best way they know how are not bad people. People who are addicted to retail ‘therapy’ are suffering and don’t have the education or support to stop, unlike other addictions.

But I am attacking something. I am attacking an industry that screws us all over and gives very little back. I am attacking individuals and companies that work together and compete together to suck every last bit of money from our pockets so they can keep acquiring far more cash than anyone could ever spend in a lifetime.

I’m attacking the people who steal from us and manipulate our hopes and dreams with advertising and Instagram sponsorship. It’s hard to conjure an image that can adequately sum up who and what I am attacking, but how about we call them The Pusher. The Pusher says things like, “Who cares if you don’t buy my shit? Some other idiot will” or, “But if you don’t buy my shit the economy will collapse!”

We need to create and consume – it’s how everything functions. We need shops, and people who work in shops, and people who make things for shops. We need stuff. We need a variety of stuff. We need fun stuff. Hedonistic stuff. Practical stuff and weird stuff. But I think most of us can agree the world is full of too much stuff, poorly made and in such vast quantities that most of it will end up in a landfill, usually sooner rather than later.

It’s a passive movement – there’s no action required. Anyone can join. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a $10,000 pair of jeans or a $10 pair, you can make a difference. This is one revolution you can join by not doing a damn thing. Fuck retail therapy. Fuck this insidiously disempowering idea that we have all swallowed for so long. We are better than this. We can dig deep and heal our wounds so we don’t feel the need to fill it with meaningless crap.

We can save our money and energy for experiences, not stuff. Therapy doesn’t always mean having to pay a psychologist. There are an abundance of amazing free counsellors around the country and our phone support lines are top notch. It can be just as therapeutic to take a walk and sit by a tree, talk to a friend, do some volunteer work, study, meditate, kick back with a cuppa and a bikkie, make something, write a poem, dance in your living room, write an opinion piece, take your pick. Anything can be therapy.

We can all be anarchists and rebels, people who refuse to follow the crowd. We don’t need to get caught up in some advertising executive’s bullshit dream of perfection. We can reject buying culture and celebrate saving culture. It’s the ultimate way to give a giant middle finger every single day to The Pusher and everything they represent. That, to me, is truly is rewarding.

C’mon people. We got this.

By the same author:

Instead of Marie Kondo-ing your house, why not just buy less shit?

Keep going!