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How your clothing can boost your happiness

For a happy new year, build an outfit that improves your mood.

A vibrant and colorful illustration by artist Sol Cotti depicting a woman dressing for happiness, or engaging in the act of dopamine dressing. Credit: Reviewed / Sol Cotti

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The new year brings with it a chance for resolutions to make positive lifestyle changes. For some, that could mean eating healthier or moving more or finding ways to get better sleep. But if you’ve got your mental health on your, er, mind for any New Year’s resolutions, you may want to consider how you dress. Believe it or not, if you’d like to feel happier in 2022, what you wear can help affect your mood.

To understand how we can dress happier into the New Year, we talked to Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist and founder of the platform Fashion is Psychology, and asked her about “dopamine dressing,” how clothing can improve your mood, and how to dress mindfully.

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What is dopamine dressing?

Plus-sized woman getting dressed in the mirror and admiring her outfit.
Credit: Getty / chanakon laorob

Dopamine dressing is the act of using clothing as a tool to help alleviate negative emotions and improve wellbeing.

Dopamine dressing has been a buzzy term for many fashion publications and retailers this past year. According to Vogue, dopamine dressing is defined as purposefully wearing colorful clothing—like bright prints, patterns, and bold colors—to improve one’s mood. Forbes-Bell, however, deems it as something much broader. She describes dopamine dressing as the act of using clothing as a tool to help alleviate negative emotions and improve wellbeing—however that process is accomplished is completely up to the wearer.

“Dopamine dressing is not as simple as telling someone to wear a certain color or style to experience a mood boost,” says Forbes-Bell. “It has more to do with associations, many of which are driven by personal and cultural experiences.” Psychologist Karen Pine chronicled this relationship between clothing and the mind in her 2014 book, Mind What You Wear: The Psychology of Fashion, and writes that items symbolic to the wearer have the power to boost confidence, mood, and self-esteem. In short: By assembling an outfit together that pleases you, you’re likely to get a hit of the natural brain chemical, dopamine, which mediates pleasure in the brain.

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but the practice of dopamine dressing seems to have catapulted in popularity with the new year approaching—so much so, that Pinterest deemed it one of 2022’s biggest trends to watch. Forbes-Bell theorizes that the COVID-19 pandemic might’ve helped kick off the hype, explaining that while the world was inside, more people stopped analyzing their clothing through the lens of “How does this look?” and instead started to ask, “How does this make me feel?”

How can you dress to improve your mood?

Man dressed in formal clothing and staring at himself in mirror to adjust his outfit.
Credit: Getty / DaniloAndjus

Boosting happiness through clothing is achieved by piecing together clothes that personally spark joy.

Although clothing color and style have their own roles to play when it comes to dressing for mood, it’s important to understand how you, the wearer, reacts to a specific item of clothing. “When we wear clothes, the associations we place on them have the power to alter the way we feel and even impact the way we act,” Forbes-Bell says. “So, for example, if you associate a particular dress or color with joy, then you will embody that feeling of joy when you put it on.”

To improve your mood through clothing, you must dress mindfully. It may help to go through your wardrobe and set aside clothing that you believe makes you feel empowered, happy, and confident, and then work on building outfits with those pieces. The goal is to align how you feel on the inside with how you look on the outside. A certain outfit has the ability to boost your overall wellbeing and mood, but that all depends entirely on how you define those pieces you put on your body.

A note, however: According to Forbes-Bell, researchers found that people who wear black clothing come across as more authoritative to larger groups, compared to those who don’t. If you have a 2022 goal to exude more confidence and power, it may help to play with blacks in your wardrobe.

Can clothing really make you happier?

Plus-size woman smiling at her outfit while looking into a mirror.
Credit: Getty / FG Trade

Clothing can be deemed "happy" if you define them as such.

Yes, but that all depends on what you qualify as “happy” from your wardrobe. It could mean loose-fitting clothes you can lounge around in, or a pair or shoes or hat in your favorite color, or a sweater you were given as a gift by a family member.

It could also mean wearing items that reflect your personal values, or preference of social or cultural groups. If the topic of sustainable fabrics is dear to your heart, for example, you can boost your mood by making a point to wear them.

For Forbes-Bell, wearing clothing she used to share with her late sister helps her cope with moments of sadness. “I tragically lost my older sister to cancer almost four years ago,” she explains. “When I experience bouts of grief, I reach for the clothes and accessories that we used to share—like the high heels she bought me for my 21st birthday or the dress she wore once to an office Christmas party. When I style myself with these items, I’m inadvertently engaging in nostalgia dressing. They transport me to happier times and help me to channel my grief instead of locking those feelings away.”

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