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Buying things for my feelings

The unhealthy things in the pursuit of happiness
Blog 67 buying things

Do you ever catch yourself buying things to feel happy? Are you working in a job you don’t love to pay for a car you don’t really need? Do you self-medicate with muffins or new shoes? It’s so interesting how many things we do (and how much money we spend) to compensate for something we feel is missing, or to keep up with the pack.

Let’s consider shopping. What is it about spending money, getting something new and shiny, that we love so much? For one thing, it can make us feel good, if only in the short term. In 2014, a series of studies found that when people bought things – or even just imagined themselves buying things – after a sad experience, they became happier, because it restored their sense of control. No wonder so many of us have given our credit cards a workout during the pandemic! Research conducted during this time has revealed that more than two-thirds of shoppers felt happy, in control and a level of normalcy while shopping (and that it staved off feelings of stress, loneliness and boredom, despite what was going on around them).

Many of us also shop to keep up with the Joneses. We irrationally overspend because our animal brain takes over, trying to fill a void or impress those around us. It’s called ‘conspicuous consumerism’ – a term that describes people who parade material wealth as a measure of their social position and status.

Of course, while buying something new might make us feel great in the short term – as might that bottle of wine, tray of brownies, or whatever else we turn to when times are tough – any positive feelings soon dissipate, only to be replaced by whatever we were feeling before, or worse. According to one theory put forward by marketing professor Rik Pieters, materialism fosters social isolation – placing consumers in a ‘material trap’, whereby the more they shop, the lonelier they feel, and the more they in turn shop to make themselves feel better (and so the cycle continues). His findings, based on six years of research, showed that when people valued possessions as a happiness medicine or as a measure of their success, it increased their feelings of social isolation. However, if they bought things for material mirth alone, any feelings of loneliness decreased or were unaffected. In other words, if we shop to make ourselves feel better or to impress others, it’ll make us feel lonely. But if we buy those new shoes because we really like shoes, nothing but our bank balance stands to suffer.

Feeling happy, healthy and successful means different things to different people. Coaches often have conversations with clients who feel like they are stuck – like they’ve made decisions that got them on a certain path and now they don’t know how to get off. When I’m feeling bored I shop. When I’m feeling happy I book holidays. When I’m feeling sad I look at friends on Instagram who look happy so I can feel worse. When something is missing in our life, we often implement coping strategies that aren’t necessarily conscious or good for us. Sometimes it’s actually about avoiding our feelings; using retail therapy, alcohol and other vices as a distraction.

But by identifying the coping strategies we instinctively use when experiencing negative emotions, we can learn to overcome them. Start with a life audit. Ask yourself: what is working in my life? What do I need to manage or make changes to? What do I really want my life to look and feel like? It’s so important that we understand our triggers. The happiest people in the world are masters of self-management. They understand why they behave the way they do and, as a result, are able to keep their emotions and impulsive behaviours in check.

Like them, you have a choice in how you respond to a situation. When something becomes stressful, or you’re feeling lonely, sad or bored, you can choose to fall back on your preferred coping mechanism – to pull out the credit card or raid the pantry, knowing it will only provide temporary relief. Or, you can choose to take a more conscious approach, recognising your feelings for what they are and taking a different path. Tip of the day: live a conscious life.

- The Coach Place team.

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