Recent consumer psychology research suggests that we are willing to spend more when we are sad and shows how positive emotions reflect on our product choices. But when does a little retail therapy turn into a dangerous shopping addiction leaving financial ruin and broken relationships in its wake? Just how do our emotions unfasten our wallets?

Over a hundred years ago, psychologist William James suggested that material goods play a crucial role in defining the self and that there is a close connection between this material self and emotions.

Today we take a tour of the shopper's mind to find out what and why we buy in sadness and in celebration.

Psychologists draw a spectrum of emotions that influence our spending patterns from retail therapy to compulsive shopping.

Retail therapy is shopping with the main aim of improving the buyer's mood and is often a short-lived habit during periods of depression or transition, according to Dr Raymond Hamden, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai.

Oniomania, retail therapy's more sinister sister, is the medical term for the compulsive need to shop. Commonly referred to as shopaholism, it is considered a clinical addiction or an impulse control disorder, explained Hamden.

When compulsive shoppers feel anxious, lonely, or depressed, they go shopping to experience a thrill. Doctors believe this may be due to the stimulation of beta-endorphins, chemicals in the brain that make a person feel high.

If they continue to seek this feeling of euphoria through shopping, they may get into a vicious cycle of addictive behaviour.

In extreme cases compulsive shoppers even experience "emotional black outs" where they fail to remember what they bought, according to Ruth Engs, Professor of Applied Health Science at Indiana University.

Clear signs of addictive behaviour include the inability to stop when the negative consequences of shopping become obvious, developing a talent for overlooking these problems, loss of self-control and the inability to quit, and "hitting rock bottom" after realising the problem can no longer be ignored, said Hamden.

The most common cause is that a link exists between compulsive shopping and clinical depression. Low serotonin levels found in depression are also associated with increased rates of impulsivity. For this reason, medications such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are regarded as beneficial in helping compulsive shoppers ease the urge, doctors say.

Being in a consumerist culture, getting access to easy credit, a lack of financial planning, and an unclear vision of their goals in life, also cause shopaholism according to Karin Mizgala, a Vancouver-based financial planner with a degree in psychology.

"The recent financial meltdown is a stark wake up call to remind us that we all need to take more personal responsibility for our money," she says.

Hamden noted that compulsive shopping can lead to emotional distress, chaos, and arguments with family and friends about the shopaholic's spending habits. It can ruin work and family relationships.

Professor Lorrin Koran, Director of Psychiatry and Obssessive Compulsive Dirorder Clinic at Stanford University Medical Centre, was involved in one of the biggest studies on compulsive shopping in 2001.

Koran's research findings indicated that shopaholics generate large credit card debts with some severe cases that take out second mortgages on their homes, declare bankruptcy, and subsequently get divorced. Others lie about their purchases or hide them to avoid their partners' complaints about their shopping habits.

She found that more than 90 per cent of shopaholics were women. The reason is uncertain but one theory is that women tend to boost their self-esteem by buying new clothes, shoes and cosmetics to feel more attractive. They also act differently than men to low serotonin levels by binge eating and compulsive shopping while men become more aggressive and risk-taking, according to psychologist Daniela Intili.

From crying to buying

A study found that feeling sad, coupled with self-centered thinking, leads to a greater likelihood of overspending on purchases that make you feel better. This "misery is not miserly" effect means that sadness and self focus lead to devaluation of the self, a desire to enhance mood, and putting a greater value on purchases to make one feel powerful, attractive, or secure, according to June 2008 study published in Psychological Science.

Another study that examined "happy" consumers' purchasing preferences showed that people feeling pride are likely to buy "bling" products such as watches, laptops or shoes, for public display and approval. People feeling contentment are more likely to buy items like a bed, vacuum cleaner, or dishwasher for private comfort and pleasure.