PhotoHas a bad day ever left you crawling towards the welcoming arms of a shopping mall? If so, you’re not alone. Half of all Americans report engaging in compensatory consumption — or “retail therapy” — as a way to feel better.

Whether you botched an interview or tripped over your words during an important presentation, that nagging feeling that you could have done better is powerful and persistent. And for many, it can be alleviated by buying something. New research shows, however, that what you buy matters.

Arizona State University professor Monika Lisjak — who studied several hundred university students — found that buying something that reminds you of your setback can actually make you feel worse, leading you to waste precious mental energy ruminating on the setback.

Wastes energy

Buying something to improve your competence is called “within-domain compensation,” and it can backfire, she says. Attempting to repair hurt feelings by going shopping is one thing, but it’s best to steer clear of products related to improving your situation. A book on improving public speaking skills, for instance, might not be the best purchase after a (self-perceived) poorly delivered speech.

“They end up dwelling on their problems,” Lisjak said in the article, which appeared recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. That rumination can drain energy.

Lisjak also found that people who are in a state of dwelling on a failure were more likely to have low self-control (expressed by eating M&M candies) and were less likely to do well on tasks (solving math problems).

The results of this study, said Lisjak, could have implications for marketing. Companies might consider selling products that are “across domain” in order to take consumers’ minds off their setbacks.

Recovering from failure

While buying the shoes might help you feel better in the short term, there are plenty of other ways to get past a failure. Here are a few tips:

  • Revive your self-worth. Compartmentalize your failure for a moment, and make a list of the qualities you possess that make it possible for you to succeed. If you’re modest, try asking a friend or someone who knows you well to remind you of your strengths. “Read the list and reconnect to your potential,” Guy Winch Ph.D. tells
  • Remind yourself of what success would mean to you. Recharge your motivation by remembering why you began pursuing your goal in the first place. Reconnecting to these reasons will help you think about how you would feel if you succeeded, especially after having failed at a previous attempt, says Winch.
  • Reframe the failure as a single incident. Winch recommends making a list of the specifics of the situation that might be different when you approach the task next time. Include items such as circumstances, factors related to the other people involved, your mood, your spouse’s mood, the weather, your general frame of mind, how you slept, and as many others as you can. Then check off the many factors that might be different when you try again.

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