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Wanna have retail therapy?

Is shopping really such a terrible thing that we should feel guilty about indulging in it? Seema Goswami discovers.

india Updated: Jan 21, 2008 15:12 IST
Seema Goswami

One of the more famous stories about the Prince and the Princess of Wales is about the time the couple was on a State visit to a Middle-Eastern country. They were received at the airport by a member of the local royal family who then sat down in the VIP lounge to exchange the customary pleasantries with them.

He asked the Prince about his programme and then fearing that the Princess would feel left out, turned to Diana and asked what she would be doing in the course of the visit.

According to Diana’s private secretary, Patrick Jephson, she brightened immediately and was just about to talk about the many worthy things on her schedule, when she was interrupted by her husband. Charles turned to his wife and asked quizzically, “What was it, darling?” And before she could respond, he added ruefully, “Shopping, right?”

Needless to say, Diana was crushed, the onlookers embarrassed and another story was added to the saga of the unravelling royal marriage. See, that’s the thing about shopping. It just gets an unnecessarily bad rap.

Instead of being seen as an essentially harmless activity that benefits everyone involved, the word is deployed as a term of insult to wound and maim. And for some reason, it’s always women who are at the receiving end of the blow.

Husbands are always ribbing their wives – sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes not about the amount of shopping they manage to do in their lunch hour. The better halves of our sporting stars (think Victoria Beckham) are forever being slagged off about the fact that they have turned shopping into an art form.

In truth, every woman ever spotted with a bunch of shopping bags weighing down her arms, lays herself open to this kind of derision. Ah, out shopping again? Well, no surprises there! And just like Princess Diana, all of us end up feeling hurt and belittled. We smart under the humiliation, we bridle under the weight of this put-down, and in the process, we also become needlessly defensive about our proclivity to shop.

But think about it for a moment. Why do we get so shame-faced and apologetic? Is shopping really such a terrible thing that we should feel guilty about indulging in a bit of retail therapy? Not in the slightest. On the contrary, there’s scientific evidence to back what we know intuitively: shopping is good for us.

Two of the world’s leading experts on brain research, Guy Mckhann and Marilyn Albert, have a theory on why women live longer than men. It’s because they shop more!

In their book, Keep Your Brain Young, McKhann and Albert explain that shopping has three benefits. One, it helps people stay physically active – all that trudging around shops, trying on stuff, lugging heavy bags around.

Two, it keeps them mentally alert – comparing prices, hunting for bargains, deciding what to buy and what they can do without.

Three, it makes them feel good about themselves. The sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a task leaves them with a more positive self-image. And then, there’s the subliminal sense of well-being that any social interaction (with shop assistants, cashiers, etc.) brings.

You feel more involved with the world; therefore you feel that you still have a role in it. But forget all this theorising. Ignore the fact that the well-being of the economy depends on our continuing to shop.

On the most basic level, shopping is a feel-good experience. What’s more, you can experience that high even without buying a single thing. A spot of window-shopping, browsing through the wares displayed in a store – books, clothes, shoes, jewellery, electronic gizmos, whatever – can cheer us up when we are feeling low.

Walk into a well-ordered store in which everything looks pristine and just-so and you feel that everything is right in the world. Holly Golightly, the heroine of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, had the right idea. She headed for Tiffany’s whenever she felt depressed.

“Nothing bad could ever happen there,” she said famously. In my mind, the best kind of shopping involves books. I can spend hours riffling through the latest releases, leafing through some old favourites, short-listing books that I can buy without blowing my budget, mulling over which ones to put aside for my next visit and then waiting impatiently to get home so that
I can get cracking onmy first read.

Not that you have to max out your credit card to enjoy the pleasures of retail therapy. Sometimes the most fun of all is to go shopping for something as mundane as fruits and vegetables.

You feast your eyes on the ripe plumpness of tomatoes, the fleshy firmness of avocadoes, the fresh green of new peas and dream of all the wonders you can conjure up with them in the kitchen. There’s nothing quite like the guilty pleasure of picking up a chocolate bar on your weekly grocery shop and gobbling it up even before you get home. And then there are those timeswhen you are heading home exhausted after a long day and just the sight of a flower-seller at a traffic light can put a smile on your face.

You buy a bunch of red roses, stick them in a vas e on the dining table, and suddenly life seems so much better.