Are Guilty Pleasures Helpful to One’s Mental Health?

If you enjoy binge-watching Married at First Sight, reading a dystopian adolescent trilogy, or relaxing with a glass of wine at the end of the day, you might be wondering if your delightful guilty pleasures are, well, good for you. It’s very understandable. Despite how enjoyable these pastimes are, we’re frequently hesitant to say we’ve spent the weekend binge-watching Netflix or engaging in another largely innocent activity, such as perusing beauty product deals or squandering hours on Pinterest. You’ll be relieved to learn that you can let go of your guilt and humiliation and indulge for the sake of your health.

“It’s true, when we indulge in guilty pleasures, mischief, or break the rules, we are a little more connected to our inner child,” says Deborah J. Cohan, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. “We’re trying to see how much we can get away with. And there’s often a sense of achievement in finally allowing ourselves to do something so unconventional.”

Your mind and “sinful” pleasures

First and foremost, there is no objectively “guilty” pleasure. The word is a societal construct designed to make us feel as if our interests aren’t as interesting, enlightening, or informative as they may be. Subjective cultural and gender norms play a role in this. (Most people don’t consider blasting classical music or binge-watching football to be “guilty pleasures.”)

“While we all believe that spending our leisure time doing things that improve our minds and enhance our knowledge is a good idea, your brain, like all other organs, needs to rest,” says Aniko Dunn, Psy.D., a psychologist at EZCare Clinic in San Francisco, who adds that people have “increased positive emotions and reduced negative ones after indulging in the pleasures of guilt.”

Neuroscience backs up the idea that engaging in harmless enjoyable activities is beneficial to one’s health. Dopamine, the feel-good chemical responsible for our high mood and sensations of health and wellbeing, is released by the reward pathway, a part of the brain. According to Dr. Cohan, when we expose ourselves to things we appreciate, neuronal pathways in the brain light up. “This is why so many of us are inspired by travel, witnessing live musicians and dancers, or going to the top of a large structure and viewing a panoramic view of a city,” she explains.

However, we can achieve similar sentiments by indulging in minor tasks and pleasures that we enjoy. Playing a half-hour game of Two Dots at lunch or watching the Real Housewives of Anywhere every week has a similar impact. According to a review published in Frontiers in Psychology, mindless video gaming can boost well-being, increase feelings of accomplishment, and reduce stress. According to a study published in the journal PLoS One, merely allowing yourself to enjoy what you’re doing (e.g., practising self-compassion) can help you manage with anxiety and sadness.

Is it possible for your pleasures to become liabilities?

Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Yes, to put it succinctly. “Too much of anything is never good, and this is no exception. If we stay up all night binge-watching episodes, there could be something more going on beneath the surface, and what appears to be pleasure could be hiding pain, anxiety, or avoidance, according to Dr. Cohan.

So, both during and after your guilty pleasure party, check in with yourself: Do you feel revitalised and fulfilled? Do you have a feeling of exhaustion? Energized? Is it true that putting off your to-do list for a few hours made you feel more prepared to handle it later? The essential thing to remember is that there’s nothing wrong with a self-care routine that includes laughing your way through The Bachelorette as long as it helps you relax and unwind.

If you’re feeling good but have a lot of ideas about what you “should” be doing, consider rephrasing some of your thoughts so you may enjoy your free time without feeling guilty. “These moments of rule-breaking, mischief, and guilty pleasures give flavour and colour, vibrancy, and richness to our lives and frequently remind us of the people we once were or wished to be,” Dr. Cohan explains. This is especially true in the last year and a half, when so many of us have faced great obstacles. If a wonderful romance novel makes your life a bit easier right now, go ahead and enjoy it (guilt-free)!

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