Tips for Increasing HappinessLately I've been thinking about the importance of "small treats." By small treats, I mean ordinary, minor indulgences that we don't give ourselves every single day. Small treats are a lovely source of momentary pleasure in our everyday lives, of course, and I think they also have a deeper role to play in happiness. I've vowed to make time to treat myself.
Why do small treats matter? When we feel depleted and drained, and when we have no time or energy left to devote to little activities that give us pleasure, we start to feel exhausted, resentful, and angry. Indulging in a small treat helps refresh and energize us. It's easier to be patient with your children in the afternoon if you had coffee with a friend that morning. It's easier to tackle a big project when you're looking forward to making a trip to the office-supply store. (Though perhaps I'm the only one who loves a trip to the office-supply store.)
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But even when you want to give yourself a little treat, it can be surprisingly hard to think of one. So many pleasures come at a cost: That ice-cream cone has a lot of calories; the museum exhibit requires a long trip across town.
In particular, I often have trouble making time for treats. My favorite is reading, a treat that takes time, quiet, and mental focus, which aren't always easy to find in my day. Rollerblading, experimenting with a new recipe, taking a bubble bath - all of these are great treats for the right person, but they take some time and energy to set up.
To equip myself with ideas for those moments when I need a shot of energy and enthusiasm, I've been collecting a list of small treats that don't cost much time, energy, or money.
For instance, I've become obsessed with the sense of smell, and I love the fact that a good smell can be enjoyed in an instant, with no cost, no effort, and no planning. In a flash, I can enjoy the fresh smell of a grapefruit, or the comforting fragrance of clean towels, or the promising smell of a hardware store. My latest favorite treat, which I save for moments when I need an extra bit of reassurance, is the fragrance Memory of Kindness from the niche perfumer CB I Hate Perfume. It's a warm, sweet summer smell. I only put it on as a special treat. (Of course, it did cost me something to buy it, but not much - $13 for a tiny bottle - and it will last me a long time.)
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Mysteriously, I often find myself "saving" a treat. My tendency, for instance, is to dole out that Hay perfume very rarely, but lately I've been reminding myself: No, don't save these treats; make time for them, enjoy them now. Give yourself a little treat! One of my other favorite treats is reading children's literature; I love books like The Golden Compass, Little Women, and Half Magic. Nevertheless, I find myself saving these books. Why? I remind myself: Read for fun! Make time for the treat!
Two categories of treats, however, need to be treated gingerly.
First, food. Treating yourself by indulging in forbidden food may feel good for a moment, but it may leave you feeling guilty or out of control. A bowl of fresh, dewy strawberries makes a good treat, perhaps, or making your own loaf of bread, but half a pan of brownies? Nope. People who struggle with their relationship to food may do better to find nonfood treats, period.
Second, shopping. An hour of "retail therapy" can be a treat, but spending too much money can make you end up feeling worse, not better. Shopping at inexpensive places like flea markets or garage sales might be a way to limit your spending. Or, do just the opposite: Visit a store that's so outrageously expensive that you wouldn't dream of buying anything, and just enjoy the sights and textures. People love the aesthetic experience of shopping, and if you view that boutique or antiques store as a kind of art gallery, with an attitude of pure enjoyment but no possible purchase, you can enjoy the experience without blowing a lot of money. But as with food, people who struggle to curb their spending may do better to find non-retail activities.
In order to keep a treat feeling like a "treat," you can't indulge too often. A fancy coffee once a week is a treat; a fancy coffee once a day loses its status and is just a background activity of life. It might be a delightful moment in your day every day of the week, but it won't feel like a treat. As Aldous Huxley observed, "Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities."
Case in point: When my family goes on trips, my daughters get to buy those little boxes of sugared cereal to take on the plane. If my girls ate sugared cereal every morning, it would just be boring breakfast - but because they can have it only in this situation, they consider it a treat.
In fact, I think the small treats of childhood hold a special power. As a child, I was rarely allowed to drink soda and was only rarely allowed to buy a book - we went to the library every week. What do I do now with abandon? Drink soda and buy books!
One common happiness question: How do you give yourself a boost? If you're feeling anxious, blue, angry, or scared, what can you do to soothe yourself?
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One suggestion: Find a "comfort food" for your mind. Know what you can do with your brain that will give you a comforting break from your worries, at least for a little while. By doing so, you'll recharge your battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, and find it easier to take action to remedy a situation - and you'll sleep better.
This can be easier said than done. If you're feeling blue, look for ways to pull your mind away from your worries and onto more positive topics. One great way is to watch a movie - not something upsetting! - or a favorite television show. Don't muddy the experience by trying to multitask; if you're paying bills or folding laundry, you're not going to get the benefit from taking a break from your thoughts to watch Shrek. Give yourself a proper vacation: Sit down and enjoy what you're doing.
When I asked my blog readers to suggest some of their treats, I was able to add many wonderful treats to my own list: wearing a piece of jewelry with special significance, browsing through cookbooks or travel guides, filling an online shopping cart but logging out without making a purchase, lighting a scented candle, having a session of "fur therapy" (petting a dog or a cat), looking at family photo albums, browsing through art books, watching reality TV, applying crazy nail polish, buying fragrant flowers.
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Some people worry that it's selfish to treat themselves. But studies show that happier people are more likely to help others, are more likely to volunteer, give away more money, and are more interested in other people. I certainly find, in my own life, that small treats help give me the emotional wherewithal I need to act with consideration toward other people. If it's selfish to look for ways to give ourselves a happiness boost, we should be selfish - if only for selfless reasons.
What are your favorite small indulgences? Let me know in the comments!
- by Gretchen Rubin
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