How does shopping make you feel?

The Emotions Behind Buying Stuff

by Heather Gilmore

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Shopping (planned spending and unplanned spending) is an almost universal experience these days. People purchase an array of things from necessities like food and clothing to luxuries like electronic devices, more clothes, jewelry, toys, and the list goes on and on.

Sometimes people allow themselves a set amount of money in their budgets specifically for shopping on unnecessary items. Others spend without setting a limit. Despite the amount of rationalization people tend to believe they have over what they buy and how they decide to purchase things, there is an element of emotion that plays a role in the final decision.

Logical thinking about our decisions only takes us so far. Logical reasoning can help us to clarify what our options are in regards to what items we might purchase, how much they are, whether we want the item or not, and so on.

However, in the subconscious, emotions take a stance in helping our minds to evaluate that information. Our emotions help us to identify the value that we place on a specific idea. Our emotions will tell us how meaningful we believe an object is, such as the importance of a new outfit. A person may associate a new outfit with feelings of self-esteem, self-worth, superiority, and/or success. Therefore, the emotional part of him or herself might relay the message to the decision-making part of the brain that it should place more value on (feel stronger about) buying the new outfit.

Companies typically spend lots of money on advertising to entice consumers to buy their products. The most effective advertisements are the ones that induce some sort of positive emotion, even if you aren't completely aware that this process is happening.

People experience shopping with different emotions. Men differ from women in some ways, as well. However, there are some commonalities that are frequently experienced by the average shopper.

One outcome that shopping can create is an increase in positive, "feel-good" chemicals in the brain and body similar to those experienced in addictive activities like gambling or drinking alcohol or possibly similar to the highs experienced by people who have an addictive tendency toward work or exercise.

Emotions can lead to the desire to shop or, on the other hand, shopping can lead to emotions. Some emotions that trigger shopping include sadness, grief, loss, insecurity, guilt, and excitement. And some emotions triggered by shopping include contentment, satisfaction, joy, excitement, hope, security, and pride.

Shopping can create a pleasurable experience making people want to experience the "high" again. When shopping, a specific product can trigger an emotion or the act of shopping itself can trigger an emotional response.

The After-Shopping Experience

The after-shopping experience can involve positive or negative emotions that can affect future decisions about shopping. A person might feel guilt over having spent more money than what they had set aside in their budget. This may then create an unsettling feeling during future shopping experiences. It may create an aversion toward shopping (a feeling like a person should not purchase things), which might make future spending less likely or, on the other hand, it may create an increased feeling of guilt or shame when purchasing things in the future.

The post-shopping experience may also create a sense of happiness or contentment, which could result in desiring to purchase certain types of products again. Some types of purchases, such as a new book for the lifelong learner or a new arts and crafts product for the creative might spark a sense of happiness, peace, or satisfaction because the activities that result from the purchased product connect to their interests and natural abilities.

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Additionally, a person's identity might be related to their material possessions, so shopping might be a way of maintaining a sense of self.

Do not see emotions as bad elements. Emotions can be an effective part of a productive, successful life. Therefore, it is helpful to recognize how emotions impact decisions, including their role in purchasing stuff, especially in these days where advertisements and consumeristic ideologies are all around us trying to mold our beliefs and actions.

Some Quick Tips

  • Plan a spending limit and stick with it.
  • When spending over a certain amount, give yourself time to decide if you really should buy the item.
  • Learn about yourself and your own emotions and thoughts at a deeper level. Clarify to yourself what triggers you to spend, what spending/buying makes you feel, and what emotions you experience after the spending. Self-awareness is one of the greatest tools of self-growth.

Reviewed July 2017

Heather Gilmore, LLMSW has a master's degree in social work and a bachelor's degree in psychology. She has worked as a case manager and mental health therapist supporting families as they work on their goals regarding health, wellness, finances, education, careers, and parenting.

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