We've all shopped while sad, lonely, depressed, hungry, grumpy, angry, and all of the above. And often, a new pair of shoes really does provide that jolt of adrenaline we needed to get on with the day. Plenty of research shows that buying things provides a mini high, and that wearing something pretty and new makes us feel happier and more confident — not that we need scientists to prove this, because we know it firsthand.
But a new study published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research and discussed today in the Atlantic shows a dark side to the psychology of shopping: It can be an isolating experience, and thus contribute to overall feelings of loneliness. Acquiring material goods for oneself is a pretty self-absorbed activity, after all. If you've sacrificed an afternoon figuring out how to afford a certain handbag instead of hanging out with a living, breathing human, then you are on a lonely road, my friend. From Rik Pieters, who authored the study:
People experience loneliness when their need for relatedness is frustrated. There is reason to believe that materialism can “crowd out” social relationships (Lane 2000) and thereby frustrate the need for relatedness and contribute to loneliness.
Much of Pieters's article is populated with scientific lingo like that, but here's the gist: In addition to taking time and money away from more fulfilling social activities, certain types of materialism can lead to a dangerous kind of self-judgment wherein we value ourselves based on our possessions rather than our relationships (and compare ourselves to others accordingly). That means you'll never truly be able to enjoy that pair of shoes you bought, because someone else will inevitably have nicer ones and make you feel just as pathetic as you did before you bought them (or maybe even worse, because now you're poorer).
In Pieters's words:
Valuing material possessions as a measure of success and as a medicine for happiness were associated with increases in loneliness over time, and loneliness in its turn was associated with increases in these subtypes of materialism. Jointly, this forms the vicious side of the materialism-loneliness cycle, which perpetuates once it is formed.
The same can be said for turning to food or drugs or alcohol instead of what really makes most people happy: other people. The same is true of any psychological behavior where we displace our problems instead of finding a sustainable solution.
Anyone who thinks a new pair of shoes will actually help them confront a difficult boss, dump a boyfriend, or find a date is terribly deluded. What material things do — sometimes — is help you help yourself. Fun new shoes aren't going to do a damn thing unless you put them on and walk out the door. But they might provide extra motivation for you to do so.