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Does Online ‘Window Shopping’ Make You Feel as Good as the Real Thing?

Accumulating endless high-end crap will not fill that gaping void in your soul. But what about simply pretending to buy it?

The department store is dead, but not the spirit of the retail-therapy patient who once careened down the boulevard, finding solace in the simple act of going in and out of stores without buying anything. It’s just that the “window shopper” has taken on a different (likely pantless) form. No longer does this person require an actual store or a shopping mall to flood their slumping sense of happiness with a cool shot of dopamine brought to them exclusively by the latest sale at Zara: Instead, all they need is a cozy spot on the couch, maybe some snacks, and most importantly, an internet connection. They shop and shop — but never pull the trigger.

Retail therapy writ large is hardly a new phenomenon. According to a report in Very Well Mind, 62 percent of regular shoppers admitted to making purchases in an effort to lift their moods. But of course, we’re talking about not buying things at all — just packing your Amazon shopping cart until you need to take a break for more snacks or you have to take a poop or something (although let’s be honest, the latter action will hardly stop you from clicking “add to cart” on that fourth pair of black jeans that look like your three previous pairs).

The good news is, the simple act of placing those new boots, diverse set of spatulas or your now fifth pair of black jeans in a shopping cart is, in fact, helping your psyche. Per this article in The Atlantic, shoppers in three separate studies found they got more happiness from thinking about their next purchase than they did from actually owning the thing they were excited about purchasing:

“‘Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts to materialistic people, and because they tend to think about acquisition a lot, such thoughts have the potential to provide frequent mood boosts,’ [Marsha L.] Richins [of the University of Missouri] wrote. ‘But the positive emotions associated with acquisition are short-lived. Although materialists still experience positive emotions after making a purchase, these emotions are less intense than before they actually acquire a product.’”

To that point, there is evidence to support the idea that for materialists — people who place the utmost emphasis on possessing material items, rather than pursuing spiritual or cultural interests — no amount of collection can satiate the psyche. “One study from Tufts University sums [up] these effects pretty simply: ‘Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings,’” reports Lifehacker. “‘People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant.’”

In other words, more stuff will not fill that gaping void in your soul. But what about simply pretending to buy it?

All of the evidence suggests that window shopping can in fact be an effective antidote to the days when you’re feeling down. According to Part-Time Money, the reason daydreaming about buying your now sixth pair of black jeans is better than actually buying them is due to something psychologists call habituation. “Once you own something, you get used to it. When’s the last time you experienced the same joy at owning an object than you did when you first bought it?” writes Emily Guy Birken. “The new purchase excitement you feel over everything from cars to furniture to iPads eventually fades, but your feeling of wanting things doesn’t abate just because of how much you own. We are all looking for the next new thing to want, and if we have the money, each purchase will simply give us a momentary high before the cycle begins again.”

The same theory, then, can be true of virtual window shopping — after all, an aspirational online shopping cart may just be the one thing that gets you through your soul-crushing 9-to-5 job on a Tuesday afternoon. “It just feeds all the different parts of my personality,” Sunny Sepasi, a frequent online window shopper, tells me. “Just knowing I have the option of buying something can be enough. I’m not going to necessarily take it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.” James Silverman, another chronic online window shopper, echoes Sepasi’s belief. “It sort of gives me something to look forward to without actually affecting my finances,” he says. “I don’t buy three-quarters of the stuff I put in my cart, but it still gives me a little boost.”

And if you’re worried about mucking things up for other, potentially more serious shoppers, don’t be. In fact, feel free to fill your online cart until you go bleary-eyed from staring into your screen. “Putting items into the shopping cart doesn’t take them out of circulation,” one customer wrote on an Amazon forum in response to an inquiry about holding items in your cart. “That only happens with an actual purchase.” The only time an item is actually in a sort of online limbo, whereby it hasn’t been purchased but it’s still on hold, is if there’s an issue with the buyer’s method of payment.

All of which is to say, we’re perfectly safe to keep indulging our insatiable capitalist-driven appetite for black jeans and shopping for shit online that we’re never going to buy.