I tried a self-care subscription box — but did it make me happier?

The premise of having wellness products delivered to your doorstep is promising, but one woman found it made her feel more guilt than happiness.
Woman receiving a package at home from delivery man
Humans are novelty seekers and getting something new and unexpected delivered to your doorstep triggers a release of dopamine.wagnerokasaki / Getty Images
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By Ronnie Koenig

I’d been hearing about subscription boxes for a while before I decided to try one out for myself. The idea of a recurring delivery of curated products sounded intriguing, and there were plenty of them to choose from. I asked my friends on Facebook if they had tried a box they really liked — a couple of women (all the responses were from women) loved FabFitFun and Stitch Fix, and many purchased subscription boxes filled with cool-sounding stuff for their kiddos. One friend said that even though she opts to customize her FabFitFun box she often forgets what items she picked so she still gets that element of surprise when the package arrives.

After considering my options, I decided to go for TheraBox, which bills itself as “the #1 self-care subscription box” and “Happiness in a box.” The website says that all items in the box are curated by therapists, and that in addition to full-sized products you get a “happiness activity” inspired by neuroscience and positive psychology research. When the box arrived on my doorstep, I was strangely excited. It was as if a surprise present had arrived for me, even though I had used my own credit card to buy it.

Why are we drawn to subscription boxes?

Apparently, I’m not the only one who gets that kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling when a subscription box arrives. According to Jennifer R. Wolkin, Ph.D., a NYC-based licensed clinical psychologist, it’s the whole psychology behind why these services are so popular.

“Humans are novelty seekers,” Wolkin told me. “When we find something new in the box, the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, thought to play a primary role in our brain’s reward system, is likely stimulated to release dopamine. Dopamine is known as one of the reward- and pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters.”

Wolkin also said that getting a subscription box has a social aspect to it for many of us.

“Being part of a subscription plan that we know other people are receiving, and then being able to talk about the shared experience of the items on social media, elicits a sense of belonging and community,” she said. “Also, let’s not deny that fact that exclusive products make us feel special; plain and simple.”

I tried it: a self-care subscription box

Indeed, the TheraBox is nicely packaged, with the words “ingredients to happiness” inscribed on the purple floral box. Inside, I pushed aside the tissue paper to reveal the goodies.

Some of the products I wanted to try right away — like the Manna Kadar Beauty champagne charcoal body scrub and the Afterspa detox brush with massage nodules. Others, I was a little skeptical about, including the Sugarbearhair women’s multi-vitamin gummies. (I’m not a vitamin-taker and I felt a little wary to take a supplement that was just randomly sent in the mail to me.) And while I was excited about the cute “luxury shower cap” it was way too small and therefore got relegated to the kids’ bathroom.

This brought up an unexpected emotion: anxiety about what to do with the unwanted stuff. I knew that in theory, I could give them to girlfriends, but in all likelihood, they would remain on my vanity table in a state of limbo. Throwing them in the garbage didn’t feel right. Sure, I could donate them. But would a women’s shelter really need a jar of Unicorn Lip Plumping Mask?

Wolkin said that my feelings of guilt over the unused products aren’t uncommon.

“It’s possible to feel guilt for not engaging in all things sent in a given month,” she said. “Businesses love this, because it’s a recurring and passive purchase. What usually happens is even if we aren’t continually benefiting from it, we go about our lives and forget to unsubscribe.”

For some, there may be comfort in having someone else choose products for them. It’s understandable, as the variety of options out there — not just regarding self-care, but in virtually every area of life — can be overwhelming.

“A curated box gives us the chance to let go of the control, the need to make many decisions, and instead, have it done for us,” said Wolkin. “It feels less overwhelming, and also allows us to put our trust in a dependable source.”

My verdict: Happiness doesn’t come in a box

But I learned that taking the choosing into my own hands is likely the better route for me. Although the excitement I felt at receiving a box in the mail really did feel great, ultimately I would have preferred to spend my money on a couple of self-care products I really like and want (or a couple of fancy cocktails for me and a friend, which totally falls within the realm of self-care in my book).

One item I did enjoy were the Basecamp Cards — a deck of playing cards with conversation starters on each one. Although the suggestion is to play with a group of friends, they can also be used in any setting, with anyone, and so I tried them out with my husband. Although none of the questions were really that exciting (for example, “Would you rather explore space or the deep sea?" And “Do you have any regrets? What’s your biggest one?”) they did get us to take a break from our work and connect — and that really did make me happier!

I think the problem with the subscription box is that fundamentally, no products are actually going to make you happy. You may get a thrill at spending, or opening a box, or being surprised. You may even enjoy that deep moisturizing mask. But real self-care is something you can’t package and send in the mail.

Boxes like this sometimes perpetuate the notion that we have to spend a lot of money to take care of ourselves. It’s nice to do those things if viable, but self-care at its core doesn’t cost anything monetarily.

“I think boxes like this sometimes perpetuate the notion that we have to spend a lot of money for the most curated products to take care of ourselves,” said Wolkin. “It’s nice to do those things if viable, but self-care at its core doesn’t cost anything monetarily. It’s about taking the time out for ourselves to let go of our busy-ness, slowing down and creating a lifestyle that supports our ultimate wellness. Even if this starts as taking five minutes a day for mindfulness practice, that’s a start, and very worthwhile.”

Personally, I have nothing against a fancy face scrub. And sometimes, the right products can be truly transformative. But the reality is that happiness isn’t something the mailman can bring; it’s something you’ve got to go find yourself. And that seemed like the best reason for me to hit “unsubscribe.”

After I recycled the cardboard and the unwanted bottles from my subscription box, I stepped outside to take a walk in the winter sunshine. It was the best I’d felt all day.

Reclaim self care

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