Treat Culture: Why The Self-Care Trend Helps Us Get Through The Day

If TikTok content is any indication, young adults love their treats almost as much as the snack-obsessed toddler you used to babysit — so much so that it's become a generation-wide movement dubbed "treat culture." If you're between the ages of, say, 18 and 40, you've probably already dabbled in treat culture, but if you need some examples, look to videos by creators such as Mel Douglas ("One thing about me is I'm a little treat girl to my very core," reads the caption on one clip) and Sydney Grace (who spends every Monday treat-hopping around the neighborhood).


Pursuing "little treats" has become a self-care habit and way of life for those who are done feeling guilty for indulging, and the trend has far exceeded the boundaries of TikTok. You'll see signs of treat culture sprinkled across other social media platforms, too, such as in the Twitter meme of a faceless character being carried away in a stretcher because "she didn't have a lil treat." Offline, you'll likely see treat culture in action at your local coffee shop, candy aisle, or Sephora.

But even if little treats sound cute and juvenile, there are several reasons so many of us are using them to survive day after day of adulting.

Your brain on treats

A midday latte or Barbie pink pedicure feels good because these indulgences stimulate the pleasure regions of the brain, according to Dr. Patrick Porter, a neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap. "When we taste something we enjoy, for example, it sends a response to our hypothalamus that we're in a state of pleasure and satisfaction. That feeling resonates through our body with a chemical cascade of corresponding positive neurotransmitters, which give us a feeling of joy and acceptance," Dr. Porter explained to Sunday Edit.


Whether you want a dose of feel-good chemicals to get through a rough day or to celebrate a good one, treats are a familiar way to get it. And, as is the norm in treat culture, incorporating these little indulgences into your regular schedule provides some predictability, where you always have something to look forward to.

This pattern might feel especially necessary if you're unhappy in other areas of your life. Treats can become a form of escapism, distracting you from discomfort and dissatisfaction. However, as Harvard Health Publishing points out, this is often how addictions develop. Pleasure, whether involving illicit drugs or everyday vices like sugary desserts, can become addictive when it interferes with your overall well-being. To be considered an act of self-care, treat culture must complement — not diminish — your daily life.


If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Treats can be a much-needed form of motivation

Here's a not-so-flattering stereotype about young adults that kind of rings true: We're just not that motivated — at least not in the way our elders might be. Maybe it's all those participation awards we were given as children, although it might have a bit more to do with the unstable economy we've endured (more on that later). Either way, younger generations view motivation differently. One survey by Cangrade revealed that millennial employees are less willing to go "above and beyond" at work compared to Boomers and Gen Xers. Another 2012 study published by San Jose State University showed that young adults tended to be more extrinsically motivated, while Boomers and Gen Xers tended to be more intrinsically motivated. Put another way, younger generations are compelled to take action when there's an external reward (hello, treat culture!), and older generations pursue activities simply because they're enjoyable or fulfill a personal value.


If young adults today are used to chasing rewards, it makes sense that treats could be a source of motivation. Tacking a little treat to the end of a work project or errand may be just what you need to complete the task. And as Bettina Makalintal, a reporter and author of a viral pro-treat Tweet, told The New York Times, a simple mindset shift can turn unfulfilling activities into moments of joy: "If I go for a walk to get coffee, then it's not just a walk; it's an outing."

It gives us agency over our personal pleasure

It's no coincidence that treat culture exists alongside self-care culture. Thanks to the internet, we might be more self-care savvy than almost any other group in history, from following stress-busting meditation practices to trying beautifying "everything showers."


Treats, in the form of a Friday night dessert or an overpriced beverage, easily fit into just about any self-care routine, though they're a little different in one key way: Treats typically follow an event or action. They're the pick-me-up you need after being lectured by your boss or the prize you give yourself for deep-cleaning your bathroom. But like other types of self-care, they put you in the driver's seat of your own well-being.

This point is especially important now, as many of us don't regularly socialize with a community of people who will support and congratulate us. According to a 2023 report on loneliness by the U.S. Surgeon General, Americans are spending more time alone than in previous years. Treats can be a way of cheering ourselves on when we need encouragement most. Even if you do have a supportive group of besties, sometimes a special treat for yourself just hits different than a pep talk from a friend or a congratulatory gift from a loved one (though, of course, no one said they have to be mutually exclusive). No matter who's in your circle or what your social calendar looks like, treats are one way to show yourself some love.


Treat culture can incorporate mindfulness into daily life

Treat culture might seem like the antithesis of basically anything you'd hear your yoga instructor say, given that it focuses heavily on sugary foods and consumerist purchases, but there's a mindfulness slant buried in the trend. As life coach Dana Humphrey told Sunday Edit, "Many of us have a work culture of eating at our desks and being so focused on productivity that we forget to stop and enjoy. It's important to pause, enjoy, and live your life." Humphrey added that little treats offer an essential opportunity to recharge, and these moments aren't just distractions from your problems — they're bite-sized mindfulness practices.


According to Mayo Clinic, flexing your mindfulness muscles can be as easy as paying attention to the taste of a food or feeling gratitude for a simple pleasure. And the benefits are immense: Mindfulness can ease anxiety and depression, physical pain, and work-related burnout. It can even play a role in treating health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

While you don't necessarily need an iced coffee or a new eyeshadow palette to be mindful, these treats signal that you're stepping away from the daily grind and taking a moment for yourself. Plus, they make for a pretty fun ritual if meditation and downward-dogging just aren't your thing.

Treat culture is more affordable than other self-care trends

Millennials and Gen Zers were handed a notoriously weak economy, and financial milestones, like buying a house, aren't within reach for many young adults. While big-ticket purchases and major investments might not be on the table, smaller self-care treats remain financially accessible for many people who grew up with a Treat Yo Self mentality.


In a TikTok video about treat culture, a creator named Cassie points out that treat culture is much more than a trend for people of lower socioeconomic status — it's a feel-good coping mechanism. "I remember when I was younger and my parents were just barely making ends meet, just barely, and payday would come around ... We would go to McDonald's, and my sister would get a Sprite and I would get a root beer and my mom would get a Diet Coke," Cassie recalls in the clip. In essence, these little treats don't usually cost enough to tank your budget the way shopping sprees and monthly salon visits might, yet they're still a meaningful way to reward yourself.

However, remember that indulgences can be not only cheap but free. "Our research shows that enjoying the present is important for well-being and mental health, however, this does not necessarily involve spending money," Katharina Bernecker, a social psychologist, told Dazed. "It can be small experiences of taking a walk in nature or spending an evening with friends [...] happiness is linked to experiences rather than spending."