burn baby burn!

Why Am I So Proud When I Finish a Candle?

Tiny fires! Photo: Courtesy of the retailers.

If I, a millennial, am to believe everything the media says about me, I have two defining characteristics: A predilection for “killing” things (up to and including diamonds, fast-casual food, and marriage) and a love of participation trophies. What would a trophy for killing things look like? Perhaps like the empty glass cups that mark the end of a candle.

I love my candle trophies, the skeletons left over long after the wax has burnt away. I love the way they look stacked up on my vanity, a reminder that I once spent an ungodly amount of money on wax and perfume and then actually lit it on fire. Sure, a candle can be a relaxing way to infuse a space with fragrance, but it is also a way to set money ablaze. And when you finish, some 60 to 90 hours later, you are left with a glass cup not unlike any other glass already in your kitchen cabinet — except this one often has a logo-ed label. This is the fruit of your low-grade pyromaniac labor.

Empty Diptyque candles are popular among the French-girl Instagram set, but I can never burn them cleanly enough without the decal peeling off and warping from the heat. Instead, I like the Replica candles by Maison Margiela; their cloth labels remind me of a scent I often describe as “an aggressively hot man who leaves you on read.” (The brand calls it “Jazz Club.”) Sometimes, I burn candles not to zen out, but to further their melting process along. It’s less a quest for peak hygge culture, more a race to the finish line. It is a competition with myself, a challenge to finish the candle.

There are a few reasons as to why an unfinished candle would weigh heavily on a person’s mind. The Zeigarnik Effect, named after the psychologist who studied it in the 1920s, posits that people can remember incomplete tasks more wholly than they can recall completed ones. It’s how our brains know to return to a task in order to finish it. Later studies explored how a person’s desire to actually finish the task affects their memory; the more motivation to do something, the better they can recall details about it later. And given that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory, unfinished candles serve as something of a double-whammy: “This hunk of wax will haunt me until I finish it.”

It’s harder to pin down exactly why I love the participation trophy aspect of the whole endeavor. Do I love a gold star for just showing up and doing the task to which I was assigned? Absolutely, and there’s scientific to back me up: one study found that rewarding effort rather than skill serves as a great motivator for continuing your work (this study was conducted on fifth-graders, sure, but go with me here). Yet another found that praising kids for their accomplishments, and not as a motivator to achieve those accomplishments, is key. There is an entire subset of candles that encourage their burning with surprise rings waiting at the bottom; purportedly, you might find a real diamond bauble waiting at the bottom of yours. I don’t care about that. I just want the fancy candle cup.

That desire has taught me a lot about patience, and setting myself up for success from the outset. Could I scrape the wax out of the vessel in order to have the glass sooner? That feels flagrantly disrespectful to both my candle and my overall work ethic. I have learned a lot about candle burning over the years: That I must burn it so the wax melts evenly the first time and every time thereafter, that trimming the wick is key to preventing it from smoking up and dying in a fiery inferno, and that a big array of simultaneously lit candles only ever works on Pinterest and that one episode of Friends in which Monica proposed to Chandler.

Instead, I’ll settle for igniting my candles one by one and watching my money melt away. Some men, as Michael Caine’s Alfred once told Bruce Wayne, just want to watch the world burn. I just want the candle cup left over when the flame finally goes out.

Why Am I So Proud When I Finish a Candle?