‘Guilty’ Pleasures? No Such Thing

Individual Therapy Tribeca

Go forth and read that trashy novel

We know them when we see them: The TV shows and movies we love, even though we just know they’re bad. The trashy books we simply can’t put down. The awful earworms we hate to love.

Yes, these are our guilty pleasures — what some people consider the junk food in our media diets. But if we enjoy them, why should we feel guilty? We should be free to enjoy whatever we like! And as it turns out, these so-called “guilty” pleasures can actually be good for us, so long as they’re enjoyed in moderation.

“When we rest, we think we’re supposed to use that time productively with problem solving,” said Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. While “that may be good for survival,” Dr. Neff said, constantly running through hypothetical problems “is not very good for happiness.”

Taking a mental break and enjoying something that doesn’t require intense intellectual focus gets us out of problem-solving mode, added Robin Nabi, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in media effects and emotion. It can also improve our ability to productively deal with stressors and help us engage more positively with other people.

If that’s true, then why do guilty pleasures get such a bad rap? Well, it’s not the indulgences themselves, but the attitudes we use when talking about them. According to experts like Dr. Nabi, feeling guilty about or disparaging activities we enjoy can diminish the benefits they offer us. But shedding self-imposed embarrassment about our interests can be empowering and enrich our social lives, which is why it’s time to ditch “guilty pleasure” from our collective vocabulary.

What is a guilty pleasure?

Because it’s often used in a winking way, the term “guilty pleasure” feels innocent, like a joke we’re proving we’re in on. But if that joke is about something that brings us genuine joy and isn’t harming anyone, then what’s the punch line?

“A guilty pleasure is something that we enjoy, but we know we’re either not supposed to like, or that liking it says something negative about us,” said Sami Schalk, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“That negative thing often ends up being an association with categories of identity we disparage and marginalize in society,” according to Dr. Schalk. Consider what separates sports and reality TV. The idea of someone apologizing for watching the N.B.A. finals sounds silly, but the implied apology when someone says, “Ugh, I know ‘The Bachelor is awful but I can’t stop watching it” is normalized. The type of audience targeted, according to experts, can play into why certain types of entertainment escape the guilty pleasure label.

Eliminating “guilty pleasure” from our vocabulary, and debunking the myth that the frivolous things we like reflect poorly on us, is useful in resisting false notions about who pleasure is for and who has a right to pursue it, said Adrienne Maree Brown, the author of “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.”

The guilt about pleasure

Though the terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, they mean different things, and neither really fits our conception of what a guilty pleasure is.

Guilt can be a healthy motivator to push us to change behaviors we don’t like, while shame — the painful feeling that our behavior makes us horrible people — is never productive. But when we disparage our reality TV viewing habits, for example, we typically aren’t describing a behavior we hope to change, nor are we saying we’re terrible people.

“When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism,” said Dr. Neff, the associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Beyond the fear about how others will perceive us, Dr. Schalk said this perfectionism stems from the “deeply puritanical roots” of our culture, one in which pleasure is seen “as sinful and bad and self-indulgent.”

Despite the societal message that pleasure is something that is earned, “there’s a reason why our bodies, literally at the nerve level, are wired to feel pleasure,” Ms. Brown said. For her, pleasure activism is about combating the oppressive idea that pleasure isn’t a natural part of everyday life.

She suggested asking, “Why do I feel so much shame around this if it’s not causing harm to me or anyone else?”

Our brains on reality TV

Is binge-watching seven episodes of “Real Housewives” melting our brains? Of course not, and studies suggest that “playing a video game or watching a movie or television can restore some psychological resources,” Dr. Nabi said.

Though these benefits have yet to be studied long term, and our problems don’t magically disappear once we turn off the TV, rest can reduce stress levels. Perhaps more important, “your perception of your ability to handle it improves,” Dr. Nabi said.

Giving ourselves permission to enjoy down time is also an important part of self-compassion, which is an effective way of combating anxiety and depression.

“Having something else to do besides problem solving is really healthy for us,” Dr. Neff said. She described how “flow states,” like meditating, playing sports and, yes, consuming media, can help our brains rest and recover by providing a reprieve from problem-solving mode.

“We have this cultural value of media consumption being edifying, and that what we do should be about growing and achieving,” Dr. Nabi said. “We don’t focus as much on relaxation and playing and enjoyment and fun, and these are such important aspects of being a human being.”

Balance means embracing pleasure

Still, it’s best to follow the age-old advice our parents taught us: Everything in moderation.

Though guilt can enhance pleasure in some cases, it can also push us to indulge in behaviors we feel guilty about. In one study, dieters who had been coached in self-compassion were less likely to overeat after consuming unhealthy food, while those who followed restrictive diets were harsher on themselves. If we stigmatize a behavior and then engage in it, it’s easy to go overboard, which can leave us feeling guilty and less satisfied.

Ms. Brown said that “embracing our common human need for pleasure is not about hedonism.” She added that too much of a good thing is, of course, never a good thing, which is why understanding and accepting what brings us pleasure is crucial to finding that balance.

Making connections

Perhaps the most important value of a guilty pleasure is the bond it can create between people.

“These shows are out there for a reason — they’re resonating,” Dr. Nabi said. Dr. Neff added that the connections we make with others who share our interests in such things “is not to be underestimated.”

Besides helping us connect with others, talking about what we enjoy can alleviate any residual guilt and make it easier to discover more things that bring us pleasure.

“Lots of the time, guilty pleasures get talked about in terms of genre, but you probably don’t like all boy bands, so what is it about this particular group and their music?” Dr. Schalk said. “Whatever it is, find your little niche and go for that. And don’t be ashamed of what that is, because clearly it’s doing something for you.”

Being able to talk openly about what we love is more than just a way to spend the time. After all, Ms. Brown said: “If you don’t feel like you can be honest about what TV pleases you, then what else are you keeping from yourself and others?”

By Micaela Marini Higgs