The Big Benefits of Little Luxuries

#TreatCulture is a thing. Dig in.

An Ode to Little Luxuries

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One foggy morning in Italy, the actress Courtney Halverson nodded knowingly to her TikTok filter. “My toxic trait,” she declared while wearing a white Rebecca Vallance gown and stirring an affogato in a Florence cafe, “Is thinking I deserve a little treat… every time I leave my house.” 

She is not the only one.

Since posting the seven-second video in August, Halverson’s soundbite has gone viral, used by more than 4,000 content creators, and played nearly 5.5 million times. You can hear it as creative director Dria Murphy sips a martini and baker Rosie Brown slices into a decadent piece of cake. Gen Z skincare favorite Glow Recipe used it to hype their advent calendar, and cool-girl jewelry brand Mejuri blasted it behind some stacking rings. The sound has been used by See’s Candies, Insomnia Cookies, a Botox clinic in Salt Lake City, a tea salon in India, and a girl buying Hello Kitty stickers in Los Angeles. (Relatable, tbh.)

Everywhere, it seems, people want “a little treat” — and there’s science that tells us why. In a 2021 study for the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Scott Bea discovered that “there’s actually a lot of psychological and therapeutic value when you’re shopping — if done in moderation.” Those benefits include a swift spike in dopamine, otherwise known as “the pleasure chemical,” that energizes our brains. (Yes, this means “retail therapy” can actually help nudge us out of a rut. No, this does not mean the new $2200 Khaite boots count as a mental health hack; sorry.)

“Treats are really important to make us feel energized and cared for,” says Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author of The Happiness Project, who studies the positive aspects of human nature. “People right now are exhausted and uncertain, and treating ourselves can make up for those ambient feelings of anxiety or worry.”

“I’m a huge introvert,” says Halverson, the “little treat” auteur who now resides in the Hudson Valley of New York. “So, for me, sometimes the motivation to leave my house or exist in public is that I get a little treat!” Halverson’s current go-to is a warm thermos of apple cider from her local farm. “Everything is awful right now, it feels like,” she says. “The little treat helps make your day a little better.”

An Ode to Little Luxuries

Getty Images/ InStyle

There’s also an increased feeling of control that comes from choosing our own little treats, according to a 2014 study from the University of Michigan that claims “making purchase decisions reduces residual sadness.” Translation: When we’re free to splurge on ourselves and can independently snag something we want, we’re more likely to feel more secure in the world, which ultimately leads to a happier mood.

“That’s definitely true,” says Leigh Poulos, an artist and educator in Queens, New York. She just splurged on several pairs of lace and neon wool socks ($18—$28 per pair) as a reward for acquiring her Actor’s Equity card, a major career accomplishment in the theater. “I’ve never liked spending money on socks before,” she says — they never seemed special enough for a big investment. “But then I end up with crappy ones with holes in them and get mad. So I splurged on better quality socks, and they’re making me and my feet very happy.”

Music video director Jesse Jagtiani says that social media’s obsession with “little treats” has encouraged her to level up her snacking game. “We work so hard all the time,” says the Berlin native, who also runs a non-profit for aspiring teen writers. “So I feel like our small breaks throughout the day should be pleasurable.” On especially tiring days, she swaps her regular tap water for a can of Spindrift Mint Green Tea ($8.29 for 8) or Waterloo Ginger Citrus Sparkling Water ($4.99 for 8). “Also, have you had the chocolate-covered cherries from Imperfect Foods? It’s like instant joy.”

For marketing consultant Chace Conroy, the “little treat” is usually a Sephora impulse buy. “I love so much lip gloss,” she notes, listing Summer Fridays Butter Balm ($24), Rhode Peptide Lip Tint ($16), and Kosas Wet Lip Oil Pumping Treatment Gloss ($22) as her top 3 brands. As the holidays approach, Conroy’s “little” treat has gone supersized: “The jumbo shampoo from Olaplex makes me feel literally amazing…. I exist,” she jokes, “through little treats.”

Treating oneself can also boost confidence, at least according to the super-scientific nature of my own raw emotions. Knowing I can purchase my own tiny piece of delight—rainbow star stickers from Mrs. Grossmans ($2.20), a Sunday afternoon workout at New York Pilates ($48), or a tahini coffee shake from Edith’s at Nordstrom ($8)—makes me proud of the life I’m building. In other words: It will never not be cool that the stuff I begged my mom to buy for me (Stila eyeliner, $24, or Sharpies in every color, $27) are now things I can acquire for myself.

An Ode to Little Luxuries

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And it turns out the “little treat” isn’t just a dopamine boost or a minor balm for anxious minds. It can also be used to hack our own patterns for the better. “A treat is actually an opportunity to get to know yourself,” says Rubin, who explored the phenomenon in her book Better Than Before. She uses the example of a bubble bath. “We’re told in popular culture that baths are this relaxing thing. I actually hate them!” she exclaims. “To me, they’re messy and boring. Instead, when I hear, ‘You should do something relaxing,’ I think about playing a rock album that I really love. I think about this lotion warmer I have. It’s so decadent, even though it’s like $20. Warm hand lotion? It makes me feel amazing!” 

“Treat culture” has so thoroughly infiltrated digital culture that there’s even a new newsletter, Selleb, tracking what its (mostly Gen Z) community buys for itself on a weekly basis. “Clarins lip oil is getting really popular,” says founder Chloe Lee, who began her career as an online influencer while still in high school. “I actually learned about it from my Gen Alpha cousin—because it’s not sticky, and it’s $29.” Lee has also seen a sharp spike in memberships to the AMC Stubs A-List, which allows you to see 12 movies a month for under $25. “Since movies are like $20 per ticket anyway, this is a steal,” she says. “Plus, the ultimate little treat is escaping from reality, right?”

The trick to the treat, of course, is not too much escape. For some of us, a $7 mocha is a daily reality. For others, it’s a splurge that’s only reserved for special occasions. (Though let’s be real — your forfeited latte will not help you buy a house, regardless of what your boyfriend’s mom’s great-aunt told you on Thanksgiving!) The point of a little treat is its intentionality; it’s meant to be a low-lift jolt of pleasure inserted into your normal routine. Little treats don’t even have to be purchased; taking the scenic route home or throwing your jeans into the dryer so they feel cozy and warm when you pull them on are also great examples.

When it comes to turning little treats into big emotional benefits, Rubin also recommends setting a boundary between the healthy and unhealthy. “Some people can have one glass of wine, and that’s a treat. But if you need the whole bottle, that’s not ideal. Same with Netflix. One trashy show? A treat. Staying up until 4 am watching the whole thing? Not great.” While self-control isn’t exactly a chill activity, using a treat to help enforce our limits can help build healthier habits. (You can also do what I did last week — after hitting level 11,000 — and finally delete Candy Crush. Your call.)

Of course, some “little” treats are actually big buys, especially around the holidays. Banking director Jessica Ting held off on buying tiny luxuries for herself until she took a trip to Italy in early November. “I bought a white fringe leather pouch from Bottega Veneta at The Firenze Mall,” she says. 

When I tell her that, at $2,800, it’s not exactly a small treat, she corrects me: It’s only 7 inches high. “You know… it’s little.”

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