Why Shopping Feels So Therapeutic

People aren’t boasting about ‘retail therapy’ for nothing.

Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash


Numerous articles online expound the benefits of flow, how it is the most productive state of our minds, and how we must always strive to find flow in whatever we’re doing in order to achieve maximum productivity.

The father of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes it as “an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill- and during which temporal concerns (time, food, self-ego,etc) are typically ignored.”

This definition could not hold more true for many jobs and tasks that require deep concentration and a razor sharp focus in order to be performed.

Imagine a surgeon or pilot getting distracted from his job even for a few seconds.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible for the lay man to achieve flow with even the most basic jobs provided they satisfy certain criteria. Not everyone needs a six-figure income job to experience flow. In fact, flow can be found in normal everyday activities such as doing the dishes, going for a walk, or cleaning the house. You might even find flow engaging yourself in your favourite hobby, like how I found mine in trekking.

Csikszentmihalyi says one can induce flow even in the most mundane and boring of tasks such as studying using gamification. By getting yourself to take an active role in the process, you are now a step closer to experiencing flow.

Shopping might not satisfy the criteria to be considered a flow state activity. But just like with studying, it can be induced, creating a sort of semi-flow state for those who are passionate about it.

Here’s how that happens:

Shopping facilitates mind wandering

Wondering what that is?

Simply put, it’s the most basic state our minds enter when we’re doing absolutely nothing. Like taking a stroll inside a shopping mall for example. We’re not engaging our minds with any higher order tasks here. By merely acting as spectators to our surroundings, our thoughts are free to wander and flow in whatever direction they like. As we effortlessly stroll around the flat air-conditioned aisles of the mall, our brains are busy absorbing all the subtle nuances that would be missed were we in a hurry; the colours, the lights, the smells, the sounds and the overall experience of it all.

The light piano tunes emanating from the speakers in the ceiling gliding across the interiors of the mall , the dim lights popping out from various outlets contrasting with the brighter lights of the hall, the smell of cookies wafting out of a cookie cart, the logos of brands you’ve known to love and admire smiling at you from the other side of the lobby, and the pleasant air conditioned floral essence that makes an appearance at your nostrils from time to time. Everything coalesces together to make the mall feel like a warm mental hug.

When our higher brain centers are given a break, especially in an environment that is so aesthetically designed and mentally pleasing, an atmosphere for creativity incubation is automatically created.

Let’s fetch a better explanation of this from the web:

You’re likelier to hit up a new blog idea or proposal for your client while shopping rather than sitting at your desk ruminating on it for hours together. In a study, researchers found that 25% of moments of sudden inspiration and creative insight occurred to participants who were mind wandering. This mostly works for window shoppers as they’re not there to necessarily buy something. They just want to take in the ambience of the mall or shopping avenue and stimulate their brains with everything that’s placed at storefront displays.

You’re wondering how you’d look in the jeans displayed on the mannequin of the window in front of you paired with those shoes that caught your attention three shops behind. You’re discussing the quality of the material with your friend. You’re seeing how it’ll pair up with the outfits you already have. You’re checking for discounts.

And mind you, this is all before even getting into a store.

Shopping centers are designed to be visually attractive and mentally stimulating as they create a psychological hook making customers feel right at home.

More often than not, this leads us to make some kind of purchase at the mall, and quite rather unwittingly I must add. Ever notice how you and your friends decide to “catch up” at a mall just for a cup of coffee, and end up walking out with something or the other? That’s your feeling brain working. Just like when we’re in love, we’re primed to not think logically at a mall. We’re hooked to all the feel good decorations of the mall and assume the establishment loves us, when in reality they couldn’t really give two hoots about our presence there.

It’s an organization, not a human being, remember? It survives by you purchasing stuff.

Your favourite mall in the city is going to do perfectly fine without your “shopping spree” and you taking selfies with your friends under the massive Christmas tree placed outside.

If our brains can trip on so much from just window shopping, what happens when we actually go shopping? That’s exactly what the rest of the article talks about. So read on!

It’s a semi-flow activity

Before explaining how shopping induces a semi flow state, let’s first see why it isn’t considered a flow state activity. While it does satisfy most of the criteria required to be called a flow state activity, it doesn’t satisfy the three main rules of flow which are:

  1. There is no end goal: You could choose to drop it all and walk out of the store at anytime.
  2. Complete and utmost concentration on the task is not required/the task isn’t challenging: You could get carried away with your thoughts as there is no challenge involved with shopping that forces you to think on your toes. There’s nothing to keep you tethered to the task with utmost focus and concentration. You could choose to break away at any time for a variety of reasons.
  3. There is no feeling of accomplishment: Sorry shoppaholics, don’t get me wrong here. While you do feel like you’ve accomplished something after spending an entire day at the mall getting everything you wanted through plenty of trial and comparison, it totally pales to the sense of achievement that comes from doing activities that inherently require a flow state to be completed. Summiting a mountain, finishing a work of art, playing a musical instrument, or even dancing are all artistic endeavours that don’t let you break away unless finished.

With that being said, shopping works as a therapy for those who are passionate and thrilled about it regardless of the amount of flow it can induce.They’re the ones who inherently view shopping as an autotelic activity; something that’s done for it’s very own sake. It is for those who have found a purpose inside of it, a method to the madness so to speak.

Having a passion for it is a pre-requisite to entering the (semi) flow state here.

A fashion obsessed person could spend hours inside a store without even knowing how time flew by. The only people who are likely to feel frustrated are the ones who’ve accompanied them and aren’t immersed in their creative process.

I’ve been on both sides of the equation, so I know.

As a person who loves fashion and keeping up with the trends, my mind is silently doing its checks and audits in the background, something very similar to what happens at work. This is a huge creativity incubator. Your mind is piecing together different items of clothing from different stores to see what combination works best. Its constantly comparing brands, quality, pricing, colour, and sizes.

It is also playing out the scenarios in your head where you’d use those items and how they best fit your style.

“Hey, this shirt would look great on me at Santoshs reception.”
“These rugged Cargos would work perfectly for that camping trip.”
“I could kill it at that office party with this denim jacket.”

“Hmmm, this shoe looks perfect for casual meetings, but could double up for long drives as well”

Our minds are continuously doing performing these checks and audits, making us put whatever suits our criteria into our trolleys and discard what doesn’t. It’s the same for grocery shopping too. Your mind isn’t thinking about how great that jar of Darjeeling tea you just purchased is going to taste. You already know that!

It’s wondering how good it’s going to feel sipping it in your favourite mug on your balcony on an icy cold morning of a winter dawn before leaving for work. Like I said, our minds are not just checking the product for price, quality, colour, size, texture, brand and shape, but also constantly visualizing and imagining the context within our lives where all these products would fit into. This checking process is therapeutic and relaxing for the mind and it also acts as a fuel for creativity. As a writer, if you didn’t get back from the mall with an outline for a new article or the next chapter for a story, you definitely did something wrong.

Stress does come in the way of the creative process and can prevent one from entering flow. You could be physically present in the shopping mall, but mentally you might be beating yourself up on how to make that upcoming loan payment. Or you could be worked up about something your boss said to you at work. Or it could be a relationship thing. Take your pick.

No checks and audits are being conducted in this state, and the brain makes you pick up only what’s necessary for your immediate satisfaction.

At times like these, you’re indulging in nothing but classical check-list shopping, something that non-creative folks do all the time. You’re not there to spend hours strolling around the store browsing the product displays.

You’re just picking up the nearest item you can find or the brand name that’s known to you. You’re not visualizing anything. All your brain knows is that your kitchen pantry needs to be restocked. And that this item fulfills that requirement. End of story.

Another very subtle factor that spurs you towards making a purchase is peer pressure. Of course you can’t be peer pressured into buying expensive clothes and jewellery (or can you? ;-)). Your wallet and financial situation are generally there to hold you back.

But what about food?

Food courts are undeniably one of the biggest revenue generators in malls. It’s the place where the majority of people are ready to open their wallets and hang out. It doesn’t matter if you don’t make a high value purchase. If you sipped some coffee at a cafe and ate some food at the food court, that itself is a win for the mall. Even though the food in there is exorbitantly priced, it pales in comparison to other material goods that you could have possibly bought.

So people generally think of it an acceptable price to pay in exchange for the chance to hang out and socialize at a relaxing, comfortable atmosphere far from the heat, noise, and pollution of the city.

Online shopping

With a vast number of shoppers flocking to E-commerce for their needs and wants, a whole new customer base is born. This space saw multi-fold growth during the pandemic as only online aggregators were allowed to function during certain phases of the lockdown.

If you’re smart enough as an online shopper, you’ll find flow here too. Keeping multiple tabs open with different websites, along with site of the brand itself, you can engross yourself with everything you would actually do at a physical store, except for trying out the product/piece of clothing, physically seeing it in action, or touching it yourself.

I particularly found online shopping to be more immersive and engaging because there’s no one to disturb my flow. When you’re outside, a ton of factors could hinder your flow such as a friend pestering you to leave, a long check-out queue, the store’s crowded and there’s a long line for the trial room, the store is about to close, you get hungry, yada yada yada. None of that is there to disturb you or break your flow while shopping online.

Keep sipping that latte and keep scrolling away!

I’d almost go as far to proffer that online shopping induces actual flow. Since the usual hindrances; noise, hunger, distractions from a sales agent or someone you’ve gone with, and the rest of the others mentioned above aren’t there, you can peacefully be absorbed by it, browsing as much as you like and completely losing track of the time.

I’ve lost days watching product review videos, unboxings, and demonstrations of my favourite gadgets with multiple sites kept open on other tabs for price and quality comparison.

So how exactly does one find flow in shopping?

One has to be product obsessed in the first place to find shopping interesting, isn’t it?

You have to take active interest in the product, the different brands producing it, its ingredients, its source, and the different variations of it that can be found in the marketplace. This is what truly makes shopping an engaging and immersive experience. When you’re wholeheartedly invested in the product, discussing its features, checking different stores for prices, watching product review videos, and getting a demo from the sales executive, all other distractions fade away. Your mind isn’t wandering anymore and you’re in the flow of things.

Your mind is not only focussing on all the product’s own features but how exactly they’ll ultimately be of use to you. Reiterating what I said in the beginning, your mind is busy playing all the scenarios of product usage in your head, seeing how to get the best out of it at the least amount of discomfort.

Your thoughts?

Are you a creative person who loves the flow process? Do you also get absorbed by your vocation and lose a track of time? Have you ever found flow while shopping? How was your experience? Do let us all know in the comments bar to the side.

I am an avid trekker, content writer, photographer and sports enthusiast. I write about trekking, society, overpopulation, lifestyle and veganism in general.