It's Monday before Christmas, and the lure of spectacular discounts has turned the usual elegance of the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue into something resembling Filene's basement at the height of a clearance sale. Gloves, hats, sweaters, and scarves are tossed about as though Katrina has just been here. But this crowd is the exception. Elsewhere in Manhattan, discounts notwithstanding, the stores are largely empty. I stop in front of one and peer through the only part of the window not plastered with an enormous "50% off on selected styles" banner. Inside, sales associates are trying to look busy, folding and refolding.
Where Shopping Has Taken Us
In our consumer-driven economy, we've long been asking material things to do what they really can't: regulate our emotions, improve our social status, and turn us into our ideal selves. A Cathy cartoon paints it perfectly. "I wasn't going to spend any money," she begins, "but I just have to buy one new thing. If I buy one new thing, I'll feel new. If I feel new, I'll act new. If I act new, I'll lose weight, excel in my job, organize my home, catch up on my correspondence, and have hordes of handsome men showering me with Casablanca lilies." "Quite a lot to ask of a headband," cautions the saleslady. "But well worth the $7.95 try," responds Cathy.
That same mentality shaped this ad for "retail therapy": "Come to Barney's Psychotherapy Sale! Fill your emotional baggage with mood-enhancing bargains. Get in touch with your inner shopper." Tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but laced with seeds of truth. That most people immediately catch on to the meaning of these messages tells us much about the unfulfillable promises that are the implicit foundation of our consumer economy.
Transformative magic, equal-opportunity, all-purpose mood changer, generalized panacea—shopping has been touted as the answer to so many questions that it was even invoked by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 as the ultimate form of public service. We could do our part to help heal the country, he assured us, by simply going shopping.
To be sure, even before the downturn, many had raised questions about the psychological consequences of our cultural devotion to materialism. Studies and indicators had found something surprising: that as our economy (and particularly our purchasing) surged from the 1960s onward, our sense of individual and social well-being dropped off sharply. The decline was documented by psychologist Tim Kasser in his 2002 book, The High Price of Materialism. Studies he'd conducted with Richard Ryan in 1993, 1996, and 2001 had shown that people who rate the relative importance of material possessions as high (in contrast to the importance of such other pursuits as self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling) report a lower quality of life. In his book, Kasser reviewed other studies that explored this connection, both from the United States and abroad, and found a consistently inverse relationship. Patricia Cohen found that adolescents who admire others for their possessions are at increased risk for personality disorders and virtually every other Axis I and Axis II diagnosis assessed in their research. Kasser's conclusion was decisive: the more you believe happiness comes from material wealth, the more likely you are to be depressed, distressed, and anxious—and the less actual well-being you're likely to experience.
At some level, of course, we've known this all along. Why else is the big shopper always portrayed as a lightweight, a cartoon caricature: the ditzy blonde struggling with armfuls of boutique bags, or the saber-toothed bargain hunter poised and ready to strike? Why else do we snicker at the bumper stickers like "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping" or the one I saw once on an Audi A8: "Veni, Vidi, Visa"? Why else do we have tongue-in-cheek disease names for our modern American habits of overconsumption: affluenza, aspendicitis, luxury fever?
Where Shopping Can Lead Us
The closer one examines the psychology of shopping, the more intricacy and nuance we discover in our decisions about what and why we buy. Whether we're shopping for a plant, a pair of pumps, or a political candidate, it's a way we search for ourselves and our place in the world. Though often conducted in the most public of spaces, it's essentially an intimate and personal experience—as we taste, touch, sift, consider, and talk our way through myriad possibilities. Shopping involves searching, not only externally, as in a store, but internally, through memory and desire. It's a vehicle for self-expression, self-definition, creativity, and even healing, an interactive process, in which we dialogue with people, places, things, and parts of ourselves.
Tom is someone who gets attached to his clothes, especially the familiar, well-loved, hole-y ones. His 15-year-old three-season jacket has been a particular bone of contention with his wife, who'd much prefer that Tom "take a little more pride" in his appearance. So for this birthday, his 60th, she's decided he must find a replacement.
She takes him to Ralph Lauren's, a store he's never set foot in, and steers him toward a dazzlingly stylish, suede bomber jacket she's picked out in advance. Immediately, an internal approach/avoidance dance begins. Holding the jacket, admiring the careful stitching, he's gripped by a feeling of disloyalty: "My old jacket and I go way back; we're tight, man. It'd be like selling my best friend down the river!" Then there's sticker-shock and a guilt trip: "Who do you think you are anyway, sporting a jacket that costs 10 times what your old one did?" Still, trying it on and looking in the mirror, he's swayed. It's so seductively soft, and he likes the feel of the suede as he zips it up. "It takes itself seriously, but it's not all business," he thinks as he notices the knitted ribbing on the collar and cuffs. "Replacing the old jacket," he tells a part of himself, "doesn't mean I've joined the Radical Right or single-handedly brought on the shopocalypse." He looks in the mirror again. "I like what I see when I look at myself in this," he admits; "it's me." With this admixture of reluctance, curiosity, and determination, Tom sheds a layer of old skin, tries on and chooses a new look—and perhaps a new self—to show the world.
Shopping, then, is exploration. It can reveal or give form to pieces of the self that might otherwise remain dormant. When we reframe shopping as a process of search, a vital activity that reaches far beyond the traditional associations with simply buying or possessing, we move our quest for identity and meaning forward. In the act of searching out the exact word, the right vocation, the perfect gift, the fitting epitaph, we seek to become more fully ourselves.
Amidst the coughs and sputters of today's American economic engine, consumption is braking hard. This is a moment unprecedented in most of our lives. It offers us an opportunity, even a push, to choose—and to help others choose—between two antithetical approaches to the material world: mindless consumption, with its unrealizable fantasy of magical transformation, and mindful shopping, with its focus on search and discovery. As mental health professionals, we have a chance to help people see both the pitfalls and the possibilities of their shopping. In particular, we can help the many whose consumption is driven by emotional needs to discover what it is they're really shopping for and how to get it.
My client Liliana, a personal trainer and nutrition coach for 20 years, has always loved shopping, but now she's trying to limit her spending mostly to necessities. At 3 o'clock on a recent Tuesday, she finds herself in front of Marc Jacobs in Soho, looking at ankle boots in a rich, eggplant shade: they're $155, marked down from $530. Very tempting. In the back of her mind, though, are stop signs. She thinks about her usual Tuesday client, who's opted for a shortened, four-day work week to forestall layoffs at the publishing company where she works; in turn, the client has cut back her workouts with Liliana. She thinks about her boyfriend, struggling mightily to make the payments on two loans, while his construction business has slowed to a crawl.
I ask her to carry a small journal for taking on-site field notes about her urges. In it, she's going to plan, record, and review her purchases. Earlier, I'd given her a laminated card with six questions on it: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay? and Where will I put it? I'd asked her to answer them, preferably in writing, whenever and wherever she had a strong shopping impulse. After a recent urge to purchase a sunddress, answering only the first two—Why am I here? How do I feel?—was enough to awaken her to the connection between what she was feeling and what her fingers were doing. That time, she was able to bypass "proceed to checkout."
With the awareness and resolve she's gained from two months of daily and weekly spending "weigh-ins," Liliana makes a straight-on announcement: "I'm gonna stop wasting money on crap I don't need to be buying. I don't want to compromise on the really important things, like the quality of my food or regular massage, but I'm just not going to spend money without really thinking it through. I'm holding off on things. I'm waiting another week for a haircut, and I'm canceling my appointment for highlights."
The Bottom Line
Shopping isn't about buying: it's about being. It's a conscious act, an essential process of search, an experience of learning and living we engage in all the time. If, aided by the pressures of the recession, we can help our clients look at shopping this way, it's an opportunity that's too good to pass up. But we shouldn't underestimate the difficulty. Finding true wealth—leveraging our nonfinancial assets in ways that revitalize our neglected spiritual and emotional appetites—requires overcoming the powerful forces that breed luxury fever. Called on as never before to untie the knot that binds shopping and buying so closely together, we're only now starting to face the challenge of backing away from our culture's relentless pursuit of excess. The time is ripe for a cultural transformation in which emotionally driven shopping gives way to shopping-as-search-and-discovery.
This blog is excerpted from "To Buy or Not to Buy" by April Lane Benson. The full version is available in the March/April 2009 issue, In Search of a Safety Net: Helping Our Clients and Ourselves in the New Economy.
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