A Happier, Heathier New Year's Resolution: Treat Yourself to Small Indulgences to Brighten Your Day

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For many of us, New Year's is a time when we look deeply into the things we'd like to change about ourselves. Weight, habits, cleanliness, finances, relationships —nearly every facet of our lives is put under the microscope. Some extra attention to our faults can be good, but in order to keep things positive, I believe that all the scrutiny needs to be balanced by some small acts of self-kindness.

It can be truly hard to carve out time for new commitments or the money for splurge purchases, but small indulgences can be a way to give yourself a break and to be kind to yourself in the midst of the daily grind or in the face of all the New Year's resolutions you may be trying to accomplish right now. An indulgence doesn't need to be grand, expensive, or time-consuming. Instead, it requires an open, generous mindset and a willingness to be kind to yourself.

Warning: I'm a historian, so please forgive me while I put on my nerd hat for a moment. If you don't have any interest in history, please skip ahead a paragraph or two, but when I was considering what it meant to "indulge" oneself, naturally, my brain went to the past.

The word "indulgence" often conjures the idea of luxury or of abandoning oneself to pleasure. But at its root, the term indicated a relaxation of restraint or a form of leniency granted by one person to another. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word first appeared in Wycliffe's 1382 Bible, when it referred to God's love and indulgence for Israel (Isaiah 63:9), and it popped up again four years later in a much more secular piece of writing — Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.* This early use of the term, which indicated giving someone else a bit of leeway, is now frequently translated as "mercy." It was only in the mid-seventeenth century that the term started to take on its current cast of "self-gratification," or the practice of giving in to something luxurious.

To fully get a sense of what it means to indulge oneself, I think we should take both of these definitions into account. Sure, that piece of chocolate or that silk scarf is luxurious, and it certainly gratifies your senses. But it's important to also remember that an indulgence can be, at its heart, a small act of kindness. It's the compassion of stopping what you're doing and saying to yourself, "Hey, I'm giving you a little bit of freedom. You can relax." Indulgences are a way to be merciful to yourself, despite the circumstances.

There are a few other reasons that I think we should be mindful of the initial use of the term:

  • You need indulgences most when you don't feel like you deserve them; they're great when you're down and out.
  • They have to be granted. And even if you're granting them to yourself, you have to make the conscious decision to take that moment to be kind to yourself.
  • All day, every day can't be an indulgence. They are exceptional, and this makes them all the more meaningful.
  • An indulgence treats your emotional well-being as much as it treats your senses.

Some of my indulgences are giving myself a few minutes each day to solve a logic puzzle. (A $6 book will last me months!) I keep a stock of my favorite pens on my desk so it feels like a treat when I have to make lists. And some afternoons, I will take the time to make iced coffee. What are your small indulgences?

*Note: This is far from the full etymology of the word, of course. There are also its legal aspects as a formal privilege granted to someone, especially from the king, and its religious aspects, as a remission of punishment from sin after absolution.

(Image credits: Carolyn Purnell)