5627559_sRetail therapy: shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer’s mood or disposition. Often seen in people during periods of depression or transition, it is normally a short-lived habit. Items purchased during periods of retail therapy are sometimes referred to as “comfort buys.” (Wikipedia)

Ever indulged in retail therapy? If you are rich and sad, you go buy a Lexus. If you are poor and sad you go buy a new Pilot gel pen. (No prize for guessing which group I belong to.) We are not surprised that recent research links buying stuff with lowered self-worth.

. . . the combination of sadness and self-focus makes people dwell on their short-comings — on an unconscious level, they feel “devalued,” says Cynthia Cryder, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon . . . In response, they have an unconscious desire to acquire things that they hope will increase their self-worth. (Jason Marsh, “Spent,” Utne, March-April ’09, 76-77.)

Unfortunately there is no guarantee that retail therapy works. “Whether it actually works — that is whether spending effectively reduces feelings of sadness — is still undetermined.” (Marsh, “Spent,” 77.) Buying stuff as a cure for low self-worth is at best a quick fix, a warm glow that already begins to fade as you walk away from the payment counter. Maybe the warm glow from a Lexus lasts a little longer.

The present economic downturn has made everyone more disciplined shoppers. But a society where more and more of us are lonely means that more and more of us will struggle with feelings of sadness and low self-worth — and be more prone to retail therapy.

. . . our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection… There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connection has powerful effects on health. Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses. Health and happiness, the two things we all say matter most, are certifiably linked to social connectedness. (Jacqueline Olds, and Richard S. Schwartz, “The Lonely American,” Utne, March-April ’09, 49.)

Retailers should still be bullish in the long run. Still, retail therapy is preferable to substance abuse.

Substance abuse is a complex phenomenon. It almost certainly does not have a single cause. But the substance abuse of a great many individuals is fueled by their experiences of social rejection and social isolation. The rising rate of depression and the rising numbers of both adults and children who use antidepressant medication are also fueled (again, in part) by experiences of social rejection and social isolation. (Olds and Schwartz, “The Lonely American,” 50.)

If retail therapy does not really meet our deepest needs for self-worth and joy, and if substance abuse destroys us, what then is the answer? Relationships — our relationship with God and our relationship with others.

God created humankind to have a relationship with Him, a relationship where He wants to bless us. Humankind was created on the sixth day of creation but the seventh day, the first day of humankind’s existence, was a Sabbath day, a day set apart for communion between humankind and their Creator. (Genesis 1:26 – 2:3). The Genesis account makes it clear that we were also created to do meaningful work but our first call is the call to relate to our Creator.

That means no amount of stuff, or substance abuse, can fill that part of our hearts that was meant to be filled with His love. God still stands ready to fill us with His love. “For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love (Romans 5:5b NLT).” But we need to make space for Him in our lives to receive His love. Most of us are too busy. And we wonder why our hearts are empty, and why we too are tempted by retail therapy and worse. Followers of Christ should know better. But we don’t, at least not in practice.

And even a good relationship with God may not be enough. We also need the nurturing that comes from healthy relationships with others as well, because it is not good for us to be alone. It says so in Genesis 2:18 — and in the results of the many studies on the destructive results of “social rejection and social isolation.” We know we have “self-worth” when we know we are loved — by God and by people. And when we love others in return. Believe it or not, “when people spend money on others, they feel happier than when they spend it on themselves (Marsh, “Spent,” 77). Maybe it is more blessed to give than to receive after all (Acts 20:35). Therefore, Marsh, quoting Ronald Dahl, suggests that:

Perhaps the best way to address the sadness-spending effect … is to teach people from a young age, that the path to personal fulfilment lies in generosity and altruism … “It is basically a new pattern of thoughts, feelings, and actions together in the brain … shifting away from self-focus toward being generous, giving to others . . .” (Marsh, “Spent,” 77.

Sounds a lot like conversion to me.

So how do we have ourselves a “merry little Christmas?” Not by stuffing our own stockings. Try giving to those in need. And making time for God, and for the people we care about.