These days, whenever Jules Zucker has to run an errand, she throws a Reese’s Fast Break candy bar into her bag.
“We’re living in an era where security and ‘the big joys,’ if you will, are not guaranteed at all,” she said. “So all we have to fall back on are small comforts. It’s almost like a poor man’s hedonism.”
“It’s about giving ourselves tiny wins,” she added. “Like a tiny symbol of resistance against systems that are sucking us dry and then telling us we’re failing.”
Ms. Zucker, a 26-year-old music coordinator living in Brooklyn, is just one of the many people who have been reimagining their lives to include more small pleasures after two years of canceled plans and lowered expectations throughout the pandemic.
Tracy Llanera, 35, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut who studies nihilism, said that this treat-forward approach is one way people are reclaiming some of the freedom and stability that has been lost since early 2020.
“In the Covid pandemic, the thing that confirms that you’re suffering from existential nihilism is the lack of control,” Ms. Llanera said.
Amid these feelings of ongoing helplessness and grief, she said, people try to find consistent and reliable pleasures.
“Something about treat culture is that you’re always regularly going to get the treat,” she added. “You can depend on that, at least. There’s a guarantee that this small little ritual that you have every week will at least satiate something in you.”
Treats are no novel concept; they had a notably big moment in 2011, when “Parks and Recreation” popularized the phrase “Treat Yo’ Self” — a saying that accompanied an annual day of (you guessed it) treats for two of the show’s characters — and introduced it to the collective consciousness.
But Treat Yo’ Self Day is notably centered around capitalism. As one character says, it’s all about buying clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas and fine leather goods, among other things.
And though the pandemic has altered people’s spending and saving habits, it has also encouraged people to redefine what a treat means for themselves more often and more creatively. Daily walks, for example, have become a coping mechanism for many workers who no longer commute to the office.
In January, when Ms. Zucker posted a tweet about deserving treats, more than a quarter million people agreed with the sentiment.
But as the tweet went viral, Ms. Zucker was wary of people interpreting it as an endorsement of capitalism.
“That was a tweet that got posted by a lot of brands, which I thought was kind of annoying,” she said. “Because first of all, they did not pay me. And second of all, I was like, ‘No, this isn’t for you.’ Like, get out of here! I’m not trying to help you sell products.”
“I think a treat can be something you do for yourself,” she added, “not just something you buy for yourself.”
Greyson Imm, a 16-year-old student in the greater Kansas City area, was one of the hundreds of people who responded to Ms. Zucker’s tweet, writing that “the ‘as a treat …’ industrial complex” has been ruining his budget and validating his iced chai habit.
“It’s grown into a constant in my life, which is why I phrased it as the ‘as a treat industrial complex,’” Mr. Imm said. “It sounds kind of serious, but it’s really, in essence, lighthearted, and a good way to either pick-me-up or celebrate something good.”
This shift toward treat culture means that outside of big ticket purchases — and outside of the multi-billion-dollar self-care industry — people are finding small and big ways to brighten up each day.
Madison Butler, a 30-year-old vice president at a glassware company, said the pandemic has encouraged her to indulge herself with bigger treats.
“A treat, for me, isn’t always a big-ticket item, sometimes it’s just like, ‘I want crab rangoon,’ or ‘I’m going to walk an hour and just go sit by the water peacefully,’” she said. “But I’m a really big advocate that Black women deserve luxury.”
After having a rough first week in March, for example, she extended her work trip to New York City by an extra day to stop at Louis Vuitton (where she exchanged a “nonfunctional” bag for strappy sandals), Balenciaga (where she found a pair of yellow, pink and green floral platform Crocs), Balmain (where she got a pink tote to match her new Crocs) and Dior (where she got a green tote) before heading to a performance of “Wicked.”
Though luxury shopping isn’t always how she chooses to treat herself, Ms. Butler said the pandemic encouraged her to reimagine her daily life.
“I split my time between Austin and Rhode Island, which was part of me treating myself,” Ms. Butler said, describing one of the many ways her life has shifted since the pandemic began. “The ultimate treat is being in a place that is good for my mental health.”
Gretchen Rubin, a 56-year-old writer and podcast host who studies happiness and habit formation, said that treats have always come up in her work, but the pandemic has given them a new sense of urgency.
“A lot of people are justifying things: ‘given everything that’s going on; given what’s been demanded of me; given everything that I’ve been deprived of; I need it. I deserve a treat,’” Ms. Rubin said.
But not all treats are created equal. Moderation, Ms. Rubin said, is what keeps treats feeling healthy and special.
“Crossword puzzles are my husband’s treat, and it’s not like he regrets it,” Ms. Rubin said. “But, if he did it seven hours a day, he might regret it.”
Acknowledging the moment as something special is critical, Ms. Rubin suggests.
“You have to say it’s a treat; you have to know it’s a treat,” she said. “If you just do it in passing, and you don’t celebrate it as a treat, then you don’t get the benefit of it.”
Mr. Imm said that mentality is what makes his common treats — buying iced chais and visiting record stores — feel special.
“You get to reward yourself by doing this thing that you would normally, but if you frame it by saying ‘it’s a treat’ or ‘it’s a reward,’ then it makes it more rewarding and more fulfilling,” Mr. Imm said.
Bettina Makalintal, a 29-year-old reporter at Eater, said she has always been treat-inclined, but working from home has made it easier for her to take the time and space to care for herself.
“A big shift in this idea of treats is approaching mundane, everyday tasks and seeing it in a way that makes it feel like a treat,” she said.
“If I go for a walk to get coffee, then it’s not just a walk; it’s an outing,” Ms. Makalintal added. “Sort of just re-shifting how I’m seeing everything so it feels like something I want to do as opposed to something I have to do.”