Why We Buy When We’re Sad

The largest part of what we call ‘personality’ is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness. | Alain de Botton 

According to one of my favorite sources on the internet, Dictionary.com, being “sad” is defined as being affected by unhappiness. In other words, the very definition of sadness is intrinsically connected to the concept of happiness (and lack thereof). Therefore, more than anything, sadness is not about feeling something specific but feeling the absence of something specific (which you may define as happiness or a source of happiness). 

Sadness is a hole we all choose to fill in different ways. Buying is one of them. And while it might not be the single most destructive way to find solace in the absence of joy, it can definitely come with a long string of attached dangers. 

Just in case the intro wasn’t clear enough, we’re going to talk about sadness today. Promise to keep it positive, though 😉. 

Why so Sad? 

There is, of course, a major difference between feeling sad and depression as a mental health disorder. But it is also undeniable that the two are interconnected, and according to WHO, more than 264 million people around the world are diagnosed with depression. 

That means that almost 4% of the world’s population is very sad. Add this to the number of people who feel sadness at different levels on a daily basis and you will soon realize that, well, life itself is pretty sad by definition. 

No need to get pessimistic, though. Truth be told, most of the causes that lead to sadness (and not necessarily depression as a clinical issue) are manageable and completely preventable. 

People are sad for a million reasons. They might experience grief over the loss of a loved one. They might have had a bad day or a bad week. They might be upset something at work did not turn out as they were planning. 

And just as there are many reasons to be sad, there are also many ways to cope with it. Buying is, as mentioned above, a very common one — and one that’s easily accessible to pretty much everyone. After all, it doesn’t take much effort to put in your credit card and order something or just take a stroll down at the mall to buy something new, right? 

How Ads Tap into Your Sadness 

There is unanimous consent among civilians that all marketers and advertisers are evil. And on behalf of my guild, I apologize for the confusion we’ve been creating over the years. 

Joke aside, though, advertising does tap into emotion, as this is one of the most powerful catalysts for making purchase decisions. Sometimes, they tap into your joy (“Looking for a graduation gift?”). Other times, they tap into your sadness (“TIRED of the belly? Try these pills!”). 

The internet has made it especially easy to access your feelings. If back in the Mad Men era advertisers could only guess that you’re not necessarily feeling great in your own body or that you have a graduation coming up, they can now know with almost absolute certainty that you are experiencing a certain emotion. 

How? 

Your search history, the places you hang around the internet, and even the music you listen to and the “Likes” you so carelessly share all over the internet. Your attention, as we were mentioning in a previous article, is a mining field for advertisers — and your internet behavior is precisely the fuel behind this. 

Is there a way to escape this? 

More privacy over your data would be an answer. The other one would be acknowledging the problem and being more conscientious as an internet user and how you share your information online. 

So next time you listen to Nickelback, think twice before hitting the repeat button without being on incognito mode, it might just be the thing that triggers the next ad for happiness-inducing-tea. 

Why You Keep on Buying When You Are Sad 

More often than not, these kinds of purchases are nothing but a comforting method. We like the shininess and the excitement new things bring into our lives, but as soon as we’re back home with them, we go back to our state of sadness. 

Basically, shopping can be a drug (and the term “shopaholic” should send shivers down our spine just like any other “-holic”, really). We get a kick out of buying stuff, and then, once the effect of the brain chemicals is all worn off, we go back to the place where we got our kick from in the first place: the store(s). 

We keep buying when we’re sad because it’s an easy way to cope with it and, frankly, most of us don’t have the time, willingness, or resources to deal with the real source of our sadness. 

Should we? 

Absolutely.

How to Stop the Cycle 

As mentioned above, shopaholism functions much the same way as any other addiction. It gives us a dopamine kick and asks for more as soon as the chemicals wear off. As such, withdrawing from the toxic pattern functions the same way as quitting any other addiction, be it alcohol, a person, or candy.

  1. You remove yourself from the object of temptation (i.e. shopping malls) 
  2. You avoid situations that might make you fall back into old patterns (i.e. stopping by the stores on your way back from work) 
  3. You find a support system (i.e. you talk to someone or join a group) 
  4. You replace old, negative habits with new ones (i.e. making a grocery shopping list and ordering it via an app, rather than going by the store yourself0 
  5. You are kind with yourself if you fall off the wagon 
  6. You deal with the innermost triggers that made you adopt the bad habit in the first place 

It sounds simple, but we all know it isn’t. Motivation is key, of course, and fortunately, when it comes to buying stuff, you can find a zillion reasons to stick to your good plan: 

  • It will be better for your finances
  • You will be able to afford nicer vacations 
  • You will finally be free of addiction 
  • It’s better for the environment

… and so on. 

And since we’re here, the access economy might also help you get rid of the bad habit of buying stuff just for the sake of it. Just sayin’, ya know — but when you have access to things you want to try out for a short amount of time (and then simply return them), you might be less tempted to become a hoarder. 😉