Has ‘Little Treat’ Culture Gone Too Far? Therapists Have Thoughts.

You may not know it had a name, but you’re likely familiar with the concept of “little treat” culture, as it’s come to be known on TikTok and elsewhere on the internet. It’s the act of indulging in small and inexpensive pleasures, either as a reward for doing a task or sometimes just because.

That might mean buying yourself an iced latte while running errands. Or taking a walk to your neighborhood bakery to grab a pastry after making headway on the work assignment you’ve been putting off all day.

As an associate marriage and family therapist, Caitlin Harrison described it: “Little treat culture is the practice of acknowledging doing something difficult, uncomfortable or boring with a reward of some kind.”

Harrison, who’s part of the Kindman & Co. therapy practice in Los Angeles, told HuffPost, “I work with primarily female-identifying folks who are in their 20s to 40s, and this is quite a popular trend in this corner of the world. As a 30-something female myself, I can say that I am a participant.”

A 2022 article in The New York Times posited that the rise of treat culture may have been a response to the “ongoing helplessness and grief” that defined the pandemic.

“Something about treat culture is that you’re always regularly going to get the treat,” professor Tracy Llanera told the publication. “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.”

Though the term “little treat” culture is new, the concept itself is not. As marketing expert Kokho Jason Sit wrote for The Conversation, it’s similar to a theory called the “lipstick index” (and later the “nail polish index”) that says consumers tend to buy small, more affordable luxuries, like cosmetics during times of economic hardship.

Treat culture is also a form of retail therapy, “but with a focus on small, inexpensive purchases rather than a shopping spree,” Sit wrote.

Therapists say ‘little treat’ culture has upsides.

Celebrating small wins in everyday life can be a good thing, one therapist said.
Celebrating small wins in everyday life can be a good thing, one therapist said.

Celebrating small wins in everyday life can be a good thing, one therapist said.

Celebrating small wins can be beneficial “in a world where we tend to overfocus on big outcomes” and milestones, U.K. psychologist and wellbeing specialist Lee Chambers toldHuffPost. 

“Small treats can act as positive reinforcement and create positive feedback loops for healthy habits,” Chambers said. “They can boost motivation and emotional wellbeing in the moment, and can foster a sense of achievement.”

Not to mention, there’s value in infusing your days with moments of simple pleasure and enjoyment. As Sit, the marketing expert, explained, the positive emotions we experience when buying an iced tea or a new lip balm aren’t about the item itself.

“They stem from the consumption experience – taking a break from work, feeling you have earned the reward of a treat, and that you are doing something to care for your emotions,” he wrote.

Atlanta clinical psychologist Zainab Delawalla said it could be “useful and possibly empowering” to use external rewards to help motivate ourselves to complete unpleasant but necessary tasks.

“For example, it is important to vote, but if standing in long lines is a deterrent, ‘treating’ yourself with a latte to make it more bearable is a nice little life hack,” Delawalla said.

But it has its downsides, too. 

That being said, an over reliance on treats to get through the day can have implications, ”including becoming dependent on external rewards” and “too much focus on short-term gratification,” said Chambers. “It can also have the potential to become normalized, taking the edge off the benefits as it becomes the standard way of operating.” 

Some also criticize “little treat” culture for being consumeristic since it’s often associated with spending money (though it can also include acts of self-care that cost next to nothing, like spending time outside, doing a crossword puzzle or listening to a podcast).

“‘Little treat’ culture can be a challenge given its close ties to consumerism,” Chambers said. “It has the potential to strain finances or even make people feel they can’t afford little treats, which can feel disheartening.”

Recently, there’s been some chatter on social media about whether “little treat” culture has gone too far. As one viral tweet put it: “Little treat culture is getting out of hand. you don’t need an $8 coffee because you did laundry.”

It can be a slippery slope, said Delawalla. If you’re relying exclusively on external motivators to complete even mildly unpleasant day-to-day tasks, you may lose your internal motivation in the process.

“Internal motivation is a very powerful behavioral activation mechanism, and we can rely on it to get us to do most of the things we need to do, as long as we can tie it back to our personal values,” Delawalla said.

“Whereas ‘treating’ yourself with little rewards can feel good, it is a momentary pleasure that creates a dependency on the ‘treat’ which may not be naturally related to the task at hand. What does fancy coffee have to do with doing laundry, anyway?”

If you can connect your household chores back to one of your core values — like maintaining an organized living space that supports your mental health — then carrying out these mundane tasks can provide intrinsic feelings of satisfaction that will help you stick to your habits, Delawalla explained.

Harrison doesn’t believe that “little treat” culture has actually been taken too far. More likely, there’s some gender bias at play. Historically, women’s interests and spending habits have been viewed as vapid and frivolous, while men’s are often not held to the same level of scrutiny.

“I more so think the issue is criticizing trends that typically women partake in,” Harrison said. “Society loves to comment on and shame women for things that allow pleasure. Limiting pleasure feels puritanical and boring to me.”

As is the case with most things, “little treat” culture is best practiced “mindfully and in moderation,” Chambers said.

Approach your personal reward system with thoughtfulness and self-awareness, Harrison advised.

“If the treat is negatively impacting your work, your home life, or your mental state, pause and rethink the pattern,” she said. “If it is adding to your life by allowing you to look forward to something in an alternatively dull and draining life, go for it.”