Two days ago, I shared a post about how living abroad changed my concept of what I needed to be happy.

The response I got back has been loud and clear – the enforced minimalism of lockdown has led to lots of people feeling the same way. 

My friend Lu said:

 “In the first week of lockdown I craved wandering around TK Maxx looking for random stuff I don’t need. Now I’ve got used to lockdown and loving spending time making things and seeing so much of my local area I’ve never seen before.”

She wasn’t alone. 

There was an element of missing shopping, but some people were finding more fulfilling ways to spend their time as a result. In fact, David said:

“Life is more relaxed. I’m being healthier and I do more for me and my wife.”

Here’s the science bit

Looking into this a bit more, I was surprised to find that scientists have actually been able to back up experiences like these with research.

In a study last year [1], they found that people who shop compulsively are actually less likely to achieve their life goals. As well as spending money you may or may not have, you’ve also spent time on it, and taken up mental energy. All of that you could have been investing in something more fulfilling – like David.

So why do we keep shopping if it’s not good for us?

There are many drivers for why people shop, and not all are bad. However, it’s important to realise that the human brain evolved to find acquiring things to be pleasurable because it helps us survive. Shelter, clothing, and food, for example. The problem comes when our brain can no longer differentiate between the pleasure caused by buying something we need and that caused by buying something we don’t. Over time, and to different degrees, our brains simply learn that getting things feels good.

If you’re shopping to feel good, rather than to acquire something you need, you’ll never be able to reach an endpoint where you’ve bought enough to be happy ever after. The relief you might feel is like scratching an insect bite – it’s temporary. Once the initial high subsides, whatever was getting you down is still there. And whilst you were shopping, what else could you have been doing?

But let’s be realistic.

I believe everything I’ve written, but I also try not to be too hard on myself. Sometimes life is just really hard, and sorting out my big issues is just too much to deal with. It’s much easier to temporarily feel good by buying stuff than it is to reprioritise my life and fix all the crap that’s getting me down. So I’m not stopping buying things altogether – I’m just being more conscious of how much I buy, and asking myself some questions when I do.

  • Do I really need this?
  • Really?
  • Or do I really need to sort something out?

So next time you feel like you need a bit of retail therapy, stop and think – do I really need this, or am I scratching an itch? Because if it’s the second, perhaps it’s time to find a better treatment for whatever’s bothering you.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash


Müller, A., Brand, M., Claes, L., Demetrovics, Z., de Zwaan, M., Fernández-Aranda, F., Frost, R., Jimenez-Murcia, S., Lejoyeux, M., Steins-Loeber, S., Mitchell, J., Moulding, R., Nedeljkovic, M., Trotzke, P., Weinstein, A. and Kyrios, M., 2019. Buying-shopping disorder—is there enough evidence to support its inclusion in ICD-11?. CNS Spectrums, 24(04), pp.374-379.