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How to Treat Yourself in 2018

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At the end of every year I write something about the great recurring problem of holiday baking.

For many people, it’s a time of year when it’s easy to become surrounded by dangerous snacks. In fact it’s a mathematical certainty—each attendee at a Christmas gathering brings a week’s worth of caloric energy, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste.

In my family, someone has a birthday in mid-December, which means we get an early warning, in the form of cake, about the impending invasion of dessert foods. This year we had a beautiful carrot cake. It was delicious and well-made, and after we each had a piece, we tried to make each other take the rest home.

Eight-year-old me would have found this scene hilarious—everybody trying not to eat the cake! To a kid it’s the perfect comedy sketch. 

I was so baffled by this kind of behavior: grownups turning down treats, waving away a passing plate of dainties or a box of chocolates, sometimes holding their hands up to physically defend themselves. They would say things like, “Oh no I couldn’t!” as though they were being asked to lie or steal, rather than eat the best food ever.

Then at some point I became one of these backwards adults, for whom the primary reaction to free confectionery isn’t excitement and gratitude, but vigilance. As delicious as that birthday cake was, we handled it much less like a wondrous, intensely enjoyable treat than a cursed ring of Mordor.

That scene of everyone defending themselves from cake was so familiar that it made me wonder—why do we do this? Why are our “treats” things that terrify us and everyone around us? Treats are supposed to be delights, but at a certain point they become something complex, two-faced, almost hostile.

I suppose for adults, a big part of the joy of the holidays is remembering what it was like when you were a kid, when treats did not seem to have a downside. They represented pure pleasure, and the only trouble was gaining access to them.

Some of this symbolism remains even after we become treat-vigilant adults. Those cookies, chocolates and cake can still look like the face of intense, unfettered pleasure, but they can no longer deliver it—a grown-up reality we may or may not remember at the moment our eyes meet a plate of shortbread, or a tray of Ferraro Rochers.

This mirage becomes more obvious every year but it still fools me. I still get excited about the idea of baking cookies, but I’m almost always disappointed when I finally eat one. They’re definitely good, but the pleasure is a low-grade kind, maybe a few dozen seconds in all, followed by a longer feeling of general lousiness. My eyes still want this stuff, but many other parts of me don’t.

There’s more going on here than changing tastes though. Consider this dictionary definition of treat:

an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure

That sounds correct, but as far as sweets go, it might no longer apply in the era of mass production. As we know, the pleasure of eating something sweet used to be rare and exotic for human beings. Occasionally during your hunting-gathering you’d come across ripe berries, or a honeycomb, enjoy the pleasant surprise, and that was about it. There was no way to experience that type of pleasure year round, certainly not every day. Even a few hundred years ago, sugar was an expensive, exclusive commodity.

Today, it’s as cheap as dirt, and there’s nothing more abundant than edible objects made of it. They aren’t special, they aren’t occasional, they aren’t exclusive to the well-off. In other words, they’re no longer treats, at least once you hit adulthood and your access to them is no longer restricted.

Of course, confectionery is only one kind of treat. We also treat ourselves to clothes, restaurant meals, gadgets, and impulse purchases of all kinds. The familiar, childhood concept of the “treat” is now an everyday way to market just about anything: elaborate coffee drinks, face lotions, more efficient wiper blades, even entire cars. Companies want you to treat yourself to their products as frequently as possible.

Whatever it is, when a so-called treat is neither out of the ordinary nor greatly pleasurable, it isn’t really a treat. It’s something else—a diversion, a vice, an ever-available option that’s usually worth turning down.

I still think the concept of treats is great. I want treats in my life. But I want my treats to be occasional and special again. For me, and probably you too, many of the items we think of as treats—certainly cake and cookies—don’t meet either of the criteria for treathood. They’re too frequently available, and the pleasure they offer is hardly “great.”

So what are real treats? How can we treat ourselves in ways that actually enrich our lives?

What qualifies as a genuine treat will be different for each person. Certainly, for an experience to be greatly pleasurable, you can’t be conflicted about it. There should be no question about whether it was worthwhile.

For me, ordering 2-for-1 pizza delivery isn’t a treat. But giving myself the time to make homemade pizza, maybe inviting a friend to join me—now that’s out of the ordinary, and greatly pleasurable. I never regret it or feel conflicted about it.

Taking a day off with no errands scheduled, there’s another one. Offering ourselves the time to idly visit an antique store, a park, a museum, whatever, can be a treat if it’s genuinely pleasurable and out of the ordinary. Maybe a Snickers bar hits both those marks for you, but probably not.

When I think about the treats I want to enjoy in 2018, what they seem to have in common is that they essentially consist of time. Time to explore, create, enjoy. In our age, that’s the rare and exotic ingredient.

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Photo by Austin Moncada

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Dave Hughes January 1, 2018 at 3:06 am

Hi David,

Great article, as always. I enjoy your perspectives on things as well as your writing style.

For this particular article, I think you missed a couple points – or at least points that are relevant for me.

I think the difference between the way adults enjoy holiday treats vs. how children enjoy them has more to do with awareness of the consequences. When you’re a kid, you can enjoy a holiday treat (whether it’s a home-baked cookie or a commercially available mass-produced product such as a Reese’s white chocolate-coated peanut butter cup in the shape of a tree) without worrying about the consequences such as weight gain or cholesterol levels. As an adult, you know the consequences all too well. In other words, as adults we often allow guilt and responsibility to diminish the pleasure of holiday treats, whereas kids can simply enjoy the momentary pleasure for what it is.

I guess we are different in the fact that I enjoy the taste and the momentary pleasure of a Christmas cookie as much as I did when I was a kid. And as an adult, I get the extra added bonus of enjoying bourbon balls and booze-filled chocolates shaped like little booze bottles. Liquor or not, the enjoyment is definitely there, but what holds me back from eating more of them is the almost-certain weight gain.

Holiday treats don’t take my back to my childhood, which wasn’t that great. I eat different treats now than what was available when I was a child. When I enjoy one (or many), I’m very much in the moment as an adult.

While it’s true that the pleasure of eating something sweet is available to us any time we want it, I find that it’s really only a temptation around Halloween and Christmas. It’s easy enough for me to avoid these sweets ten months out of the year. So I still think of Halloween candy and Christmas treats of all types as exceptions rather than the rule. That makes them a treat for me. I try to allow myself to enjoy the moment. The diet will be there on January 1.

Thanks again for all the thought and care you put into this website. You do help us to become better at being human.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:20 am

Well, yes, I guess I didn’t think it was necessary to explain why adults become conflicted about sugary treats. The point is that the idea of the “treat” remains attached to the same things, even though what it actually does for us changes because our values change.

Priscilla Bettis January 1, 2018 at 4:39 am

I plan on enjoying reading some books this year as a treat, not books that I SHOULD read, although I’ll read some of those, too, but I mean books just for the fun of it, like an old western, or a whodunnit, or a spooky ghost story. A book, a quiet room . . . now that’s a real treat.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:22 am

That sense of “should” creeps into everything, doesn’t it… I’m trying to take more of a free-spirit approach to things like which books I read, going with what I feel like, rather than analyzing what makes “sense” for me to read right now.

Andy January 1, 2018 at 6:00 am

Absolutely spot on.

So much is made of “me time” but I am sure most humans don’t utilise or make the most of this concept.

Although spontaneity is a good thing, for me carving out treat time in my schedule seems o be the only way of genuinely taking those moments and making them wholly pleasurable and guilt-free.

And for me at least there are the unexpected moments of joy that attempting to live in the moment can bring. And they’re the ones not dependent on sugar or money.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:24 am

I agree. The phrase “me time” is pretty much a punchline at this point, but we could stand to take it more seriously.

ساندویچ پانل دیواری January 1, 2018 at 7:33 am

big like

Debbi January 1, 2018 at 8:07 am

Every year, I give up sweets (and sometimes alcohol) for Lent. Besides the religious aspect of this, it reminds me that sweets are, in fact, treats and resets my ability to take real pleasure in them. I find that hedonic adaptation can blunt the joy in so many treats for me – and realize this reflects my own affluence as most people do not have the luxury of this ‘problem’ – and denial actually heightens my pleasure when I chose to have any sort of treat again. While there is a tendency for many bloggers, present company excluded, to treat experiences as privileged- vacations to exotic destinations are somehow noble in ways that a latte is not – I find familiarity can breed contempt here as well. Aquaintances who take a once in a lifetime trip every year seem to be somewhat desensitized to the experience the same way that daily latte drinkers stop really tasting the coffee.
I think part of the enjoyment children find in holiday treats comes from the fact that children cannot generally have cookies for breakfast unless it is Christmas morning. As adults, I believe it makes sense to reproduce those parental restraints through the choices we make about when and how often to treat ourselves. Others are welcome to disagree as I certainly do not claim to really understand anyone’s experiences but my own but this seems to be how I am wired.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:30 am

Well said. I’ve liked the concept of “creative deprivation” for some time now — going off something you’re used to in order to see it again with new eyes. I’ve noticed that more and more people I know observe Lent, even people who don’t seem to have any religious motivation for it. My guess is that temporary abstinence from certain luxuries is becoming more attractive in our age of overindulgence.

Jeff January 1, 2018 at 8:09 am

Walking in the woods is always a treat for me, I recommend it to everyone, Happy New Year!

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:31 am

This is a great one. This past year a friend and I started taking long walks just outside the city, and they are always so wonderful.

AllanFein January 1, 2018 at 8:53 am

Happy New Year David.
I recently asked you for your mailing address because your experiments, blog posts & Camp Calm have made a positive difference in my life.
Keep an eye out in your mailbox, I’ve sent you a “treat” that essentially consists of time, and I hope this helps with making peace with the first moment of the day.
All the best
your friend AL

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:31 am

Yay! Time treats! Thanks Al.

Tonya January 1, 2018 at 9:55 am

I agree with you. It’s funny when sweets are considered a treat, but for the most part it’s not “treating” your body very well. But, that’s also because people “treat” themselves all the time. My work kitchen counter is full of these delicious salty and sometimes sweet snacky things that you just get used to. But, in general I always feel like crap 20 minutes later. I think we are all just so used to instant gratification now. Geez even Amazon two-day delivery feels like forever now! lol! I think if we can train ourselves to restrain from having to satiate every single want right NOW, we can build ourselves into much stronger, healthier humans.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:34 am

Someone above used the phrase “hedonic adaptation” and I think we’re going to hear it more and more. Amazon could keep speeding up delivery times, and it’s only going to seem quick for a short time. Meanwhile we’re getting less and less able to bear waiting at all.

Tara January 1, 2018 at 10:07 am

I still love sweet treats and eat them every day… in very, very small quantities. I eat cookies and cakes in winter and ice cream in summer – to each season its special treat. Waiting 6 months for that first ice cream cone makes me appreciate it more.

I treat myself every day to an hour of yoga and meditation, and two bike rides a week.

My worst downfall in life though has always been buying things like perfume, clothes, jewelry, etc. as treats throughout the year, and that stops as of today. I will allow myself only one non-essential treat purchase every quarter, as an experiment this year, to see if I can appreciate them more.

David Cain January 1, 2018 at 10:35 am

I like this idea of rotating treats! It does bring to mind something I appreciate about where I live. The seasons are drastically different from each other. There are certain things we just can’t do in winter, and other things we can’t do in summer, and that keeps a certain freshness to everything.

Kir January 1, 2018 at 11:31 am

Yes, this gets to the heart of the matter so well. It’s not a treat if it’s easy to obtain! Happy New Year and thank you so much for all you do.

Terri January 1, 2018 at 12:10 pm

The availability of everything all of the time has made it possible to “treat” ourselves always. Remember when you could only get watermelon in the summer?

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 8:21 am

This is a big part of it. Geography and growing seasons used to ensure that things remain novel

Daniil Polyanskiy January 1, 2018 at 12:59 pm

“Time to explore, create, enjoy. In our age, that’s the rare and exotic ingredient.”
Which strongly makes many people to consider working remotely. I’ve stubled upon the whole book on the subject, aply named “Sane Workweek”

As for regular treat that becomes non-treats, it reminds me your article “Go Deeper, Not Wider”. Maybe not directly, but it’s still here.

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 8:45 am

Working remotely was the main reason I got into blogging. Self-employment is in many ways better than employment, but having time to explore and create is still rare unless I carve it out explicitly. It certainly gives you more potential for that time, but it’s easy to let your self-employment obligations leak into all your free time unless you put up hard walls.

Willo January 1, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Priorities and tastes change through chapters of your life. When I was young, an all you can eat buffet of Pizza Hut and KFC was an ultimate treat. Now, twenty years on, a seafood BBQ with a watermelon, mint, feta and pomegranate salad in the summer sun with friends and family on an outdoor table is a treat.

Isnt it funny how when young, naive and innocent, indulgent foods were treats and as well informed adults, they feel treasonous for those of us that care about their health and wellbeing?

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 8:46 am

They do change, but it’s interesting that yesterday’s treats can retain some of their symbolic value. I still get excited about donuts even though they’re pretty low on the “actual enjoyment level” scale.

Dawn January 1, 2018 at 11:29 pm

David,
I really enjoy your posts – they are well-written and always make me think.

Earlier today I was pouring myself a glass of wine and realizing that I really don’t enjoy it as much as I used to. The Friday night glass of wine has become an almost nightly habit and so it’s no longer a treat. Same thing with a lot of foods, especially after the holidays. I’m going to cut back on both because I miss the “specialness” of them. This applies to so many areas of life – a little deprivation is sometimes a good thing!

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 8:50 am

Sounds like a good time for a hiatus. That has always worked for me. Taking breaks from beer, wine, and coffee all made me appreciate them much more (which meant I got more out of smaller amounts of them).

Cam January 1, 2018 at 11:37 pm

Great read as always, David. On the topic of treats I had a similar revelation in the last weeks of 2017.

In reflecting on the year passed, I realised for far too long my partner and I have been too strict on spending money and have neglected to treat ourselves. I’m *always* resisting to spend money on clothes, video games, subscriptions, update my computer, decorate the home etc in spite of all of these things being many years past needing to be updated.

In the case of our house it meant living in a place that feels more like an empty vessel than a home. It became clear that this was a major contributor to why we were unhappy/frustrated in our current house and it’s now become my goal for 2018 to make our house more “homely”.

At a broader level, I aim not to be so frugal and try to be more objective about purchases, recognising when something is due to be upgraded, improved upon (or purchased afresh) and not be so guilty about spending the money on it.

Finding time to relax with two young children whilst developing skills to get into a career I’m passionate about is another predicament unto itself but for now I can at least make the house we live in more relaxing and warm.

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 8:52 am

These are the kinds of “treats” I want more of, too: things that make a homelier home. I overspend on some things, but clothes and homeware certainly aren’t them.

Phoenix Boulay January 2, 2018 at 3:41 am

My philosophy is: INDULGE – ENJOY – You have waited all year for this!

There will be plenty of time for restraint in spring and summer, as heat and humidity quells the appetite, and bikini weather can inspire healthy eating. But it is winter. Despite eating clean and healthy, I want treats! I feel like a bear who needs more food and longer naps! It’s OK to indulge, we need that extra fat to survive here in the Northeast!

I got locked out of my house with a dead cell phone on New Year’s Day wee hours…for longer than I had spent at the pub to cheer my pals. Thankfully, I eventually found my keys, that had slipped into a lining of my coat. I was ravenous upon gaining entry after 90 minutes in subzero temps, so I ate some of my pumpkin loaf, sans guilt.

As they say:

“EAT today, for tomorrow we DIEt !”

Some people may have to restrain for health reasons, that’s understandable. But if not, why not enjoy yourself? Like he said,
it is a TREAT. :v

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 9:00 am

I guess in my experience, those kinds of treats are not at all rare outside of holiday season, they just reach such a high level in December that the conflict we have about them becomes obvious. There’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, and if cookies/baking gives you that unfettered, unconflicted kind of enjoyment, then great, but not everyone experiences them that way. The question is where we can find that unfettered enjoyment if we can no longer find them in baked goods.

Dax January 2, 2018 at 5:25 am

David,

I hear you. Four weeks of vacation and eight additional pounds later, I am still trying to figure out how to shed it.

On a more serious note, I believe your statement “for an experience to be greatly pleasurable, you can’t be conflicted about it” is harder to practice than said. I guess, the term “guilty pleasures” was coined for a reason…

David Cain January 2, 2018 at 9:02 am

We can certainly seek pleasure in things that also cause us guilt and negative consequences. But it’s not true that all pleasure comes with those kinds of downsides. Getting together with friends for board games or going for a long walk might provide the enjoyment without the regret.

Sudhir January 2, 2018 at 11:11 am

A treat, in my opinion, is one that is genuinely pleasurable. Whether it is ‘out of ordinary’ is not an essential ingredient. I find that reading good books is a genuinely pleasurable activity, despite the fact that, it is something I do on a regular basis.

Mark Newbold January 2, 2018 at 12:44 pm

Great piece, very thought-provoking, thank you David. I guess we use the word ‘treat’ inappropriately at times, because it gives us license to indulge and still justify it to ourselves or others? I for one will now reflect on what really represents a true treat for me

Maureen January 2, 2018 at 1:37 pm

One of my treats during the holidays is to watch the entire batch of Thin Man movies. Although i own the collection, I don’t allow myself to watch them any other time of the year. Such a pleasure! Happy New Year from Texas! I enjoy your writing very much.

Steve Ducharme January 2, 2018 at 4:46 pm

With my lifestyle my current “favorite” treat is solitude. I’m sure that will change someday but at this stage of my life, to have solitude for even a few hours in my own home with stillness and quiet is a rare treat indeed.

Stasia January 2, 2018 at 8:36 pm

As it pertains to treats, I think the real question is whether you are TREATING yourself well or TREATING yourself poorly.

KG January 5, 2018 at 5:08 pm

Always enjoy your thought provoking posts. The topic of treats is a great one for me to reflect upon. Thanks!!

Abhijeet Kumar January 7, 2018 at 10:49 am

We might have slightly different approach, but it is always interesting reading your posts. I agree the most rare, exotic treat that I want to enjoy in 2018 is free, spontaneous time, when I can be in the moment, doesn’t matter whether it is an impromptu 3 mile walk in the rain to the nearest lake, or sharing in the moment conversation when it seems usually unlikely.

Nat Alie January 7, 2018 at 11:56 am

Great post as always. There’s a comedic sketch about women trying not to eat cake. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TgoS2lxfpE

Md Nayeem January 8, 2018 at 4:54 am

No doubts that backing something in our holiday is really enjoyable, which gives us relaxation. I also think like you, David, that if we wanna make our holiday dish or food more special, of course we should try some new and exotic ingredient to make our food, as well as a perfect dessert food should be made to make your treat better to your buddies, it could be something different from others/usual made..

Emma Cianek January 23, 2018 at 9:28 pm

Everything that is mentioned in this post is something I have thought about briefly but have never thought about in depth, and I am sure glad I read this post. I have changed my life style a lot this past year and the definition of “treat” has definitely changed for me. You really got it right that in the category of food there really aren’t treats anymore; commonly people’s diets include an abundance of ‘unnecessary’ treats. But my favorite treats are those times to explore, create, and enjoy and I think these are the treats that should be abundant in everyone’s lives. To take the time to do the things that make you happy will enrich your life. You really created a great argument and some true food for thought. I think what would also be helpful would be to go more in depth on some of the alternatives we can all do to treat ourselves.

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