How shopping can make you feel lonelier

A new study suggests that buying things can contribute to social isolation and stifle personal relationships.

By Bruce Kennedy Aug 12, 2013 9:08AM

Image: Woman shopping in interior design shop, side view © Alistair Berg/Digital Vision/Getty Images"I love shopping," Rebecca Bloom wrote in her debut book Girl Anatomy: A Novel. "There is a little bit of magic found in buying something new. It is instant gratification, a quick fix."

But the quick fix that shopping brings to some people can also lead to a lot of isolating behaviors, researchers say. That is, it can make you lonely and feel cut off from the people around you.

The data, scheduled to be published in December in the Journal of Consumer Research, has been getting a lot of publicity lately, perhaps because it confirms what a lot of people already believe to be true.

The study, by a professor of marketing at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, looked at data from 2,500 consumers over a six-year period. It found that many shoppers face a cyclical, "material trap" in which materialism contributes to social isolation, which in turn reinforces materialism.

According to the study, people shop for three major reasons:

  • Acquisition centrality -- In less academic terms, getting pleasure simply from the process of buying stuff, which includes "the joy of spending money on things that are not practical, and liking a lot of luxury in life."
  • Possession-defined success -- The idea that "you are what you own" and that material possessions determine how well you're doing in life, especially in comparison with people around you.
  • Acquisition as the pursuit of happiness -- In this case, "possessions are a drug," the study says. Acquiring stuff for this type of shopper means having "all the things one needs to enjoy life" and chasing tangible joy rather than focusing on intangibles like personal relationships, experiences or achievements.

But the study also found what it labeled the "virtuous" side of materialism: the valuing of possessions as a source of "material mirth," which can also decrease loneliness.

"Ironically, it's the maligned shopoholics who seem to have it right," Derek Thompson wrote recently in The Atlantic, "and they might hold the key to breaking the vicious cycle of loneliness and consumption."

Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist with the NY-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says shopping isn't technically addictive, but it can become compulsive behavior for some consumers who prefer what some experts wryly call "retail therapy" to dealing with other issues in their lives.

"If you are buying something you can afford and everybody that is involved in your finances is OK with it, then that's fine," Saltz told "But if you're in credit card debt or stashing it in your trunk so your husband doesn't see you bought something, this is not an effective method."

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Aug 12, 2013 11:57AM
Personally I like my solitude. Everybody moans how they need someone special. What I found is practically unlimited freedom. I can come and go as I please, eat what I please, do what I please. Get out of bed when I am damned well ready and go to bed when it makes me happy. I can shop as long or as little as I please and most importantly I can build and experiment as much as pleases me and I do just that. In fact I have no less than 3 separate experiments on my work bench right now. That's a good thing since my last two worked out brilliantly. Of course I won't tell about them since I know the government is in fact reading everything that we write and I do not want them to know everything that happens in my house. It's a matter of privacy.
Aug 12, 2013 12:32PM
I'm not anti social.....but I do enjoy being alone most of the time....dislike loud noises (Radio, TV, lawn mowers, weed wackers,etc)....I believe most people are afraid of silence....the noise makes them feel as a part of the world....the noise herds sheep....
Aug 12, 2013 12:27PM
Insert the word "Travel" for "Shopping" in the article above as well.
Aug 12, 2013 12:32PM
As a world society, we are fast learning that selfish satisfaction of extravagant want does not bring happiness, fulfillment or contentment. Conversely, it is an increasing unrewarding and troubling experience empty of the soul reward of meaningful human connection, as it is one based only on the empty trading of money for goods/services, and little else. Even as many of extreme privilege live as if the following were not crucial, the only true purpose, meaning and reward in life is love for, aid of and sharing with loved and respected others in one's own life, and those less fortunate. The personal and individual meaning of that dynamic experience to each person is the only true and real life. Anything else is a sorry imitation and serves to deny and thwart the fundamental elevation of mankind to his highest potential.
Aug 12, 2013 1:37PM
Shopping alone is good for you don't have to worry about the other person and you can stop and start without watching the time.  However there are times it brings back memories with now departed family members.  I enjoyed shopping with my family member especially at Christmas time or special occasions.  The shopping seemed to be fun and enjoyable at the time.  Now I go out to shop it's very planned, how much money I can spend, and where I'm going to shop.  It now at times gets to be very depressing and I feel very alone.  I often catch myself thinking about the good ole days and then missing the family member.
Aug 12, 2013 2:57PM

I think retail therapy is the


Aug 12, 2013 1:39PM
What's the criteria for the study? Are we talking about shopping alone? For personal consumption or "collection"? Or are we talking moms and daughters, friends or couples shopping together? And shopping just for our own needs/desires, but for others? Such as a group of young mothers going back-to-school shopping, a few retirees carpooling and shopping together for holiday gift giving, or just best friends or couples browsing flea markets and antique shops on the weekend? While amassing too much stuff leads to hoarding and therefore some isolation--as in you're embarrassed to have anyone in your home--shopping can also be a social outlet or activity.
Aug 12, 2013 1:09PM
So, basically, with millions of dollars, they have scientifically confirmed the common sense knowledge of why people in various life situations, and mental states, well spent people, money well spent...
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