Retail therapy – a first world sin?

retail_therapyI don’t remember when I first came across the idea of ‘retail therapy’, but the idea has disturbed me for some time. For those who haven’t heard of it before, ‘retail therapy’ is a term to describe shopping when you need cheering up. If you’re feeling a bit down or depressed, then you go to the mall and make some ‘comfort buys’ to improve your mood.

According to Wikipedia, retail therapy was first used as a term in the 1980s with the first reference being this sentence in the Chicago Tribune of Christmas Eve 1986: “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.”

There’s now a website called ‘Retail Therapy’ hosting fashionable clothes for all shapes and sizes. Our local civic mall invites shoppers with these words: For those yearning for some retail therapy, Canberra’s City Centre offers an innovative retail experience at the Canberra Centre. It’s even a selling point for real estate near our city: The centre of Canberra is also a few minutes walk offering fabulous retail therapy , award winning dining experiences, vibrant funky cafes and…  The lists could go on, throughout our nation and in many wealthy countries around the world.

There’s something profoundly disturbing about thinking that buying more and more stuff will cheer us up. Are we really happier for having the latest, fastest, shiniest, brightest, hippest. Of course not. It’s out of fashion before it’s out of warranty! I came back from camping and got disturbed about all the clutter. I’d lived just fine without so many things in the tent, so why do I need more and more now! I got a little depressed about it, so what did I do? I bought another tarp and another tent! (Actually there are good reasons for this, but the point still stands.) More stuff does not equal more satisfaction.

I worry too that I can be quick to spend on myself, buying things that I don’t really need, to the neglect of those in great need. We support a number of families in Kenya and in India. They’re all living well below what we’d call the poverty line. For the most part I think they know genuine contentment, but I’m sure it wouldn’t cross their minds to earn money simply to spend it on trivia when they’re feeling down. Food, clothes, school – if they can cover these things then they’re doing well.

Yesterday I received an invitation from the Oaktree Foundation to Live Below the Lineliving on $2 a day, to tackle extreme poverty. I reckon if you’re feeling a little aimless, need a little cheering up, then living below the line will do a whole lot more for you and others, than some self-indulgent retail therapy. Or perhaps when the department stores are seducing you to part with your cash or go deeper into credit card debt, you could consider contacting TEAR or Compassion or World Vision or Médecins Sans Frontières or a similar group, and get into some generosity therapy instead.

Food for thought!

6 thoughts on “Retail therapy – a first world sin?”

  1. The term makes me cringe and yet I still would like ‘this and that’. It is a real challenge in our society to even acknowledge that we are :rich compared to most of the world. If we own 3 books we would be considered rich in the larger majority of our world. I like the sound of living on $2,day for a week even if it does remind me of a boast by one of our pollies that I would prefer to forget!

  2. I think the points you have made are very true however I don’t think it can be limited to retail therapy. Think of the gym junkie, the cyclists who are at it hours a day, the foodie, the coffee snob, the tech heads who love any new technology, just to name a few. These are all people who are letting their interests, the things they enjoy and the things their personality draws them to, take too higher priority in their lives. It may not be as related to money but time is a valuable resource too. Maybe retail therapy is different in your mind than in mine but I can’t see it as wrong to buy a new outfit from time to time.

    1. Hi Lyndal and co,
      Looks like the cat is hanging around the pigeons! I don’t believe there is necessarily anything wrong with shopping, or from feeling good by shopping, or getting new stuff. The idea of retail therapy, in my mind, is that of just spending on stuff so as to feel better. God’s word encourages us to learn the secret of contentment and to seek our satisfaction in him. When we are looking elsewhere we run prone to idolatry – that is, hoping other things will fill the void only God can fill. We live in a society that keeps promising we will feel better when we buy. At best it’s short lived. God’s word encourages us toward generosity and God loves a cheerful giver. Hence, my suggestion of generosity therapy!
      I agree too that we can make idols of other things, whether it’s coffee, alcohol, going to the gym, riding or whatever. All these things are good gifts from God, to be enjoyed with thanksgiving, but if they take the place of God then they become idols also. Hope this clarifies my argument somewhat.

  3. Dear David,
    Thanks for that reminder. The retail therapy just doesn’t cut it for me anymore but it took a long time to realize it. It’s been well researched that the antidote to self pity is to do something for someone less fortunate. If you can afford the time, a rip to a third world country can do wonders for regaining a more sober perspective on so many things.
    Praying for you and thank you for your wonderful words of wisdom.
    Deb C

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