It’s Peak Season for Shopping Because You’re Depressed

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The most depressing day of the year supposedly takes place right around now. It’s also prime time to be tempted into shopping as a cure for the blues.

According to a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive on the behalf of CouponCabin.com, it is currently peak “retail therapy” season. By far, survey respondents pointed to winter as the season in which they were most likely to try to boost their mood by going shopping. Overall, 36% of consumers said winter was the top season for retail therapy, while 11% pointed to summer, the second most popular choice.

There is some dispute as to whether Blue Monday — supposedly the year’s most depressing day, according to one British psychologist’s theories — takes place on Jan. 14 or 21 this year. But by around this time, the theory goes, people should be thoroughly bummed because of factors such as dreary weather, week after week of shorter days and less sunlight, the hangover of holiday bills and the failure to keep New Year’s resolutions even for a couple of weeks. Mondays in general are also known to get people down, what with the weekend in the past and the prospect of a long workweek ahead. Hence the extremely unscientific concept of Blue Monday.

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In the U.S., Jan. 21, 2013, is being celebrated as Martin Luther King Day, when many employees have the day off — giving them something to be happy about. But regardless of which particular day is tops for feeling low, there is plenty of evidence showing that people tend to be more depressed in winter and also plenty of evidence showing that people tend to shop as a way to combat the blues. Nearly half (45%) of Americans said they have gone on a shopping excursion solely because they were in a rotten mood, according to the survey.

Interestingly, there’s also something to the idea that Monday is the peak day of the week for going on shopping splurges — at least online, that is. Most of the calendar year’s biggest e-commerce shopping days are Mondays (think: Cyber Monday, Green Monday) because shoppers have likely been in stores over the weekend and by Monday are confident they want to buy something they saw. To some extent, consumers aren’t in front of computers as much over weekends, and when they get back to the office on Monday, they’re eager to make purchases from their favorite sites. Conveniently, shopping online is a terrific way to procrastinate while not working, which is exactly the sort of activity employees are likely to engage in at the start of the workweek.

(But again, because many U.S. employees aren’t working on Jan. 21, it’s probably not going to be a particularly big day for online shopping, nor is it likely to be the most depressing day of the year.)

And what of the idea of shopping as a coping mechanism for feeling low? Marketers have been suggesting this for decades, usually subtly, but sometimes quite overtly — as in the “Fill the Void” campaign kicked off by Lucky magazine last summer.

(MORE: How Fast-Food Restaurants Tempt You into Breaking New Year’s Resolutions)

Of course, shopping isn’t a solution for depression. Not by a long shot. If anything, buying things you don’t need will only exacerbate the problem. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a consumer psychologist and professor of psychology at UMass-Amherst, explained to TIME that some consumers shop compulsively because of “feelings of low self-esteem, powerlessness and lack of control over their life” and that they may be setting themselves up for “a further cycle of depression and despair” by overspending.

Dr. Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and author of Mind over Money, has said that people often shop because they are unhappy or stressed. The tricky thing is that, initially at least, shopping feels like a solution, as it temporarily ends the misery. In the Harris survey, 4 in 10 consumers said that shopping for retail therapy puts them in a better mood.

But that mood boost is likely to be short-lived. “Shopping relieves their stress,” Klontz said. “However … the feeling quickly fades and is replaced by more stress and guilt as they are left to deal with the consequences.”

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And those consequences are probably downright depressing.

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