Juliana Breines Ph.D.

In Love and War

5 Guilty Pleasures You Can Stop Feeling Guilty About

The case for chocolate, reality TV, and more.

Posted May 23, 2012


As we grow up, we learn the hard truth that everything that feels good isn't necessarily good for us. Good-tasting food is often unhealthy, having fun usually means not getting work done, and relaxing is sometimes just a euphemism for laziness. In the world of adult responsibility, we come to equate pleasure with self-indulgence, sinfulness, and guilt. Certainly, focusing solely on superficial pleasures is unlikely to bring lasting fulfillment, but making room for the occasional indulgence may do us more good than we realize. Here, then, are 5 guilty pleasures you can stop feeling guilty about (in moderation):

1. Reality TV. Aside from their pure entertainment value, reality shows can provide comfort and reassurance, and they sometimes have educational value (even if the lessons are mostly limited to "what not to do"). As much as reality shows may seem woefully out of touch with reality, they do often capture universal human emotions that we can all relate to, particularly the pain of rejection, failure, and humiliation. We're drawn to train wrecks in part because we see ourselves in them. Witnessing others' suffering, though upsetting to watch, reminds us that we're not alone in our personal suffering, a feeling psychologists refer to as common humanity. These shows also provide opportunities for vicarious joy, as witnessing other people overcome obstacles and succeed can give us hope and inspiration. Unfortunately, many reality shows also impart destructive messages and reinforce harmful stereotypes, so make sure to maintain a critical eye while indulging. 

2. Gossip. For everyone who has ever resolved to avoid gossip, but then found themselves unable to resist whispering about someone else's business, take heart: Recent research suggests that gossip serves an important social function, and that gossipers may actually have others' best interests in mind. In their studies, the researchers found that a majority of participants were willing to anonymously divulge incriminating information about another participant's bad behavior if this information would help a third participant avoid becoming a victim—even if they had to pay to do it. This kind of gossip is useful in that it holds offenders accountable and protects innocent people from exploitation by toxic friends, unfaithful romantic partners, or corrupt employers. Of course, not all gossip is altruistic: Spreading false rumors or bringing someone down out of jealousy, spite, or prejudice is unlikely to help anyone—or bring you much genuine pleasure. 

3. Facebook. The average Facebook user spends almost an hour a day on the site, often against their better judgment, making the site a common source of both guilt and pleasure. The guilt, it turns out, may be unnecessary: Research suggests that using Facebook can relieve stress (one study found a decrease in heart rate), boost self-esteem (apparently you can get a boost just by looking at your Wall), facilitate romantic connections (even a break-up announcement can serve people well by spreading the message that they're back on the market), and increase work productivity (fun breaks help us refocus). Like anything else, however, Facebook can also be abused. For those who find themselves logging on compulsively, imposing time limits might help increase the pleasure and reduce the guilt. 

4. Sleep. Somehow this fundamental biological need has become a guilty pleasure for many people, who feel ashamed of needing naps or failing to stay up late on a weekend night. "I'll sleep when I'm dead" seems to be the mantra of my generation, though ironically not sleeping can decrease longevity. Sleepiness while driving, for example, can dramatically increase the risk of a crash, and sleep deprivation compromises physical and mental health. When your body tells you it's time to sleep, there is no shame in listening, even if it's 3 p.m. on a Monday. Remember George's napping at work set-up on Seinfeld? Granted, that wasn't wholly successful, but some companies are trying to incorporate naps into the workday due to evidence that they can improve performance and alertness. A good night's (and day's) sleep is definitely something you can knock off your guilt list. 

5. Junk food. How many times have you seen the word "chocolate" linked with "sin"? Junk food (and drink) is the ultimate guilty pleasure, with the guilt often outweighing the pleasure, which in turn may lead us to further indulge—research on the disinhibition effect suggests that after breaking a diet goal people are often likely to break it even more. We tend to get so caught up in the morality of overeating (and the virtue of restraint) that we forget to pay attention to our bodies' signals—they will usually tell us when we're eaten enough. Further, many so-called "comfort foods" are comforting for a reason: Research suggests that they remind us of close relationships, which can reduce loneliness, and many comfort foods contain chemicals that increase our serotonin levels, making us feel calm and happy. 

In moderation, guilty pleasures can be less guilty and more pleasurable (the first few bites of cake always taste the best, anyway). Sometimes, however, it's the guilt itself that makes these indulgences feel so good. Choosing to do something you know is a little "bad" can have a thrill of its own. And that's one unjustified indulgence it's sometimes worth giving in to. 

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