Time to do a little good for yourself: eat a cupcake, buy yourself a little knick-knack that will look good on your shelf, go see a film. Because beyond the instant feel-good factor of treats for oneself, there appear to be deeper psychological benefits that make constant, small treat-yo'self moments a recipe for better mental health. Turns out that kindness to yourself, expressed in affordable (or free) and small measures, is genuinely good for you. (Yes, manicures count.)
Note that we're talking small treats, not blow-out buy-yourself-a-Burmese-python insanity. There's a crucial difference between indulgence and nurturing, which we'll talk about later; but there's also less economic stress when it comes to smaller treats. This is the reasoning behind the so-called "lipstick index," the alleged tendency for people to buy small inexpensive luxuries for themselves (like mid-range cosmetics) even during recessions. Even though the lipstick index isn't a real economic indicator, it's definitely valid to remember that big expenses may cause more mental stress than they alleviate; a temporary high followed by a shock when the bill hits. Comparatively, small treats are low-risk and low-investment for a stable (if smaller) feel-good hit. (So no, you don't have a mental health excuse to buy a jet ski.)
So let's get into treats and why they're awesome for your mental equilibrium. Ideally this should be read with good-quality chocolate bar in hand.
1. Self-Compassion Is Good For Your Mental Health
Small, pleasurable treats aren't just about provoking a little hit of dopamine in your neurochemistry (though that's powerful in and of itself). They're also part of a practice called "self-compassion," which is gaining increasing ground in the psychological community as a good way to think about self-care and good mental health practice.
Self-compassion is, basically, the concept of being kind to yourself: kind in the sense of forgiving, nurturing, loving and supportive, in the same way you'd treat a friend who needed help. Scientific American pulled together a bunch of studies in 2012 showing that practicing self-compassion and kindness-to-self improved mental resilience among the recently divorced, and that acting compassionately towards yourself and others helped you feel better. (That's an important thing to remember; as you buy a treat for yourself, perhaps buy another for a struggling friend, as that will likely also boost your mental equilibrium.)
Plus, a Stanford scientist's research has shown that self-compassion and building a better, kinder relationship with yourself improve your reactions to failure and your ability to pursue success, and will possibly have implications for depression and anxiety symptoms. Expressing love to yourself via small gifts = success. Boom.
2. Rewarding Yourself For Positive Behavior Reinforces It
This is a trick you already know if you've ever had a dog: giving them treats for good behavior raises the likelihood that they'll repeat that good behavior. Treats aren't as simple when it comes to humans, but positive reinforcement for good mental practice (going to therapy, challenging negative thoughts, working on anxiety triggers) is going to help you keep the faith.
Small rewards are recommended in the particular cases of challenge or overcoming severe fears or trying to shift a habit that's adding to your mental health load (e.g. staying in bed all day or not feeding yourself). Essentially you're coaxing yourself. But treats for nothing are also recommended, in order to raise base levels of self-regard and self-care.
3. Good Self-Care Is Critical For Sufferers Of Serious Depression
Depression sufferers will be very familiar with this one: the idea of "self-care". Kindness to oneself, including treats, is an essential part of treatment at home for depressive symptoms, since so much of the depressive mindset is self-destroying and self-torturing. It's hugely important.
In this mindset, treats become a validation of self-worth. Yes, you are worthy and deserving of small indulgences; pleasure is acceptable and can be held onto; you are capable of feeling more than just doom, even if it's only briefly. Treats, from baths to walks to cookies, become part of an arsenal challenging the "depression is the only reality" trap of depressive thought.
4. Taking Breaks Improves Your Productivity
Treats don't have to be physical things; they can also be ephemeral, like, say, five minutes away from your computer screen thinking about Tom Hiddleston's butt. And science says that sort of treat is actually better for your overall productivity and focus than maintaining constant attention (or trying to) throughout the working day. The body actually works in cycles of attention, and paying attention to those with regular relaxation time will help your overall performance.
The "mini-break" on long drives (regular 15-minute breaks for rides over three hours is recommended) is already a firm part of our intelligence when it comes to driving, but it turns out that workplace breaks are necessary too. Breaking after every 90 minutes in the workplace to go for a walk, talk to colleagues, or meditate seems to be the most effective way to get through the day at high productivity, according to research.
5. Treats Can Be Nurturing Rather Than Indulgent
This is the perspective of Leon Seltzer, a psychologist who wrote for Psychology Today on the crucial distinction between indulgent gifts and nurturing treats, and why we need to make the distinction. Indulgent treats are excessive, out of proportion, and can have long-term costs like addiction. Self-nurturing treats, meanwhile, refocus the real purpose of the treat to be "loving, respectful and prudent". As Seltzer puts it, "We’re not looking for a quick fix to alter our mood or consciousness so as to escape the boredom, drudgery or pain of our existence, or to drown out nagging doubts we have about ourselves. Rather, we’re addressing our inborn needs for self-succor—but in an adult, responsible fashion."
The psychological idea being addressed by a nurturing treat isn't emptiness or boredom or frustration; instead, it's the fact that we deserve good treatment. That sort of treat-giving to ourselves reinforces better self-esteem and lower stress levels, and is something to encourage. So go on, nurture yourself. Preferably, with a brownie.
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