12/05/2013 01:41 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

New Car/ Condo/ $2500 Cocktail Dress Not Making You Feel As Good As You Thought It Might? Science Tells Us Why

Retail therapy has long been a tool for the stressed-out, brokenhearted, or just plain bored; some figures, including an April 2013 survey by online retailer eBates, a company that deals in coupons and "cash back" shopping, put the number of Americans who go shopping to feel better at more than half. In many ways, retail therapy works: A new pair of shoes, a great dress, or a sharp, well-fitting suit can soothe the soul, provide a confidence boost that helps you land a job, or inspire creativity in a way that's more than just imagined. According to a 2011 study out of Penn State published in Psychology & Marketing, retail therapy has real and lasting positive impacts on mood. The study, which looked at 330 participants that included shoppers at malls and Penn State students, noted that 28 percent of shoppers had purchased something to celebrate an occasion or personal victory and 62 percent to cheer themselves up. Indeed, studies show, money can buy happiness. A December 2012 study of 122 countries published in the journal Emotion found well-being rises with income at all levels of income--and that richer families, and countries, are happier than poorer ones.

But retail therapy might not work quite in the way consumers assume it works. That's because the happiness that buying something provides is derived not from acquiring the item, or from the item itself, but from the targeting it,
wanting it, and anticipating its arrival into your life. That is, the electric jolt shopping can provide is a result of the act of desiring, more than the act of fulfilling. Meaning: You're better off if you don't buy the outfit, or gadget, or piece of art, but simply long for it.

The evidence: In June, the Journal of Consumer Research published a study finding that when it comes to shopping, wanting things makes people happier than actually having them, even among those who do not experience buyer's remorse. Researchers analyzed the emotional state of consumers before and after making a significant purchase. Most, especially those who self-identified as materialists, anticipated future purchases with strong, positive emotions: They felt joy, excitement, optimism, and peacefulness when they thought of their future purchase, which they also believed would improve their relationships, boost their self-esteem, enable them to experience more pleasure, and be more efficient.

But after the purchase was made, and the anticipation faded into reality, what followed was what the researchers called "hedonic decline." Happy feelings dissipated. Consumers were left wanting more.

But that doesn't mean all purchases necessarily end in remorse or longing. The JCR study argues that buying is less satisfying than wanting, but not that buying makes people sad. And indeed there is an upside to the lift that wanting provides. In fact, it stands to reason that without the happiness produced from the desire for things, people who spend considerable amounts of time thinking about future purchases--would be even less happy than they are. What's more, although the happiness that results from acquiring an item may be short-lived, the happiness that comes from thinking about and planning for a purchase can be sustained with a small amount of effort.

So how, this shopping season, do you avoid hedonic decline and find the joy not only in the buying, but also in the owning? Below, a few tips for prolonging retail therapy afterglow.

Opt for experiences over stuff. You've heard this one before. There have been plenty of studies proving that buying experiences is more satisfying that buying things, including research from San Francisco State University professor Ryan Howell, who found that those who spent their money on experiences also tended to be more open and empathic as people. The answer, though, isn't to quit your retail therapy cold turkey, but to weave in experiences--trips, sporting games, theater--that might provide some added meaning.

Play hard to get. Resist the impulse to see something in a magazine, or at a friend's house, and go straight away to buy it. Instead, let yourself think about the item for as long as you can. (This may be one key to the success of social media site Pinterest, where users can post photos to create a public sort of "wish list" of ideas, goals, and, yes, goods.)

Limit flash sales. Or even buying anything simply because it's discounted. Flash sales foster quick and easy purchasing, but as such limit the beneficial impact of desire. There's no chance to feel the rush of wanting and to envision how an item might make your life better before it's put into the cart, paid for, and at your door. Studies show that consumers find the most lasting satisfaction when they believe their cash is being exchanged for goods of value and quality. An April 2013 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found, when subtly reminded of quality, consumers evaluated an expensive wine more favorably than a cheaper wine.

Shop in person. Recall, and participate in, the joy of buying things from a brick-and-mortar store, which prolongs the joy of shopping from an impulse buy in the half hour before you rush off to work, to an afternoon spent with a friend or family member or even just yourself. Online shopping is a relatively mindless activity that, while relaxing, offers little in the way of engagement with others. Shopping in the presence of people fosters a sense of connection to others, which can increase levels of happiness and satisfaction derived from the experience.

Spend within your means. Perhaps the most crucial conclusion made in the study of hedonic decline is that more really isn't better, and that wanting a new car is as effectual, mood-wise, as having the new car. Why not, then, hang onto the old one for a little longer? Milk the thrill of the longing? Forgetting even that debt can, and does, lead to unhappiness, remember, the next time you're about to press "Complete My Order" or perform the in-person equivalent, that it's not about what's acquired, but about what's yet a possibility.