Why You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About Your Guilty Pleasures

Having an extra slice of cake, watching a cheesy movie, or sleeping in until 11 AM may bring you great enjoyment. It might be something that makes your week worth it or how you get through a stressful day. Still, you may feel embarrassment or shame if you admit to it. Most of our feelings of guilt come from how other people will react, which is why "guilty pleasures" exist.

Sami Schalk, an associate professor in the Department of Gender & Women's Studies at UW-Madison, commented:

"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."

Psychologists discovered that guilt is how we determine when we have hurt other people. It stretches even further to say that guilt tells us when we may have lost social standing. A "guilty pleasure" is something we love, but we think other people will disapprove of it, so we may lose our social status.

An example of a common guilty pleasure is fast food. We may think that the people around us will look down on us for ordering it, but the worldwide fast food market was worth almost $800 billion in 2021. You are not alone if you pick up a burger after a long day.

A UK survey¹ discovered that Britons spend £4 billion ($5.25bn) a year on "guilty pleasures." A US survey² found that 84% of Americans have a guilty pleasure they indulge in regularly. So, it is much more common than we think.

What if we told you that you shouldn't feel bad about your guilty pleasures and that they are actually fantastic for your mental health? Keep reading to discover why you should indulge occasionally.

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Feeling guilty makes things more pleasurable

According to a 2012 study³, feeling guilty enhances our enjoyment of an experience. While you may expect an undesirable emotion such as guilt to negatively impact the pleasure we feel from our guilty pleasures, it is actually the opposite. Researchers discovered that guilt enhances pleasure.

The researchers conducted a series of experiments, including watching videos, browsing online dating profiles, and eating candy. The participants who were primed to feel guilt reported experiencing greater enjoyment than the other participants. However, they did not experience greater enjoyment if researchers prompted other negative emotions such as disgust or anger. 

Researcher Ravi Dhar said: "In every instance, we found that those who felt guilty experienced the greatest enjoyment."

Participants who associated chocolate cake with guilt had less belief in their self-control

However, there is a flip side to guilt. While the previous study showed positive effects on our enjoyment of food when researchers introduced guilt, we can't say the same for a 2013 study⁴. This research demonstrated that participants who naturally associated chocolate cake with guilt had less belief in their self-control than the people who associated eating cake with positive feelings, such as celebrating. 

Their guilty feelings were accurate: They were less successful at losing weight than their guilt-free counterparts. A group tried to maintain a healthy weight over 18 months, and those who enjoyed their food without any negative feelings were least likely to gain weight. Additionally, even though Americans typically feel more guilty or worried about their food choices than the French, there is a much higher incidence of obesity in the US. 

These findings may highlight another problem with how public health campaigns address addiction. Making a smoker feel naughty every time they see a no-smoking sign can ironically increase their cravings, according to a 2013 study⁵. Understandably, this creates a difficult line for governments trying to enforce laws and encourage their citizens to lead healthier lives.

Do they focus on the positives of a healthy lifestyle instead of slapping health warnings on everything? Scientists still are working out the best public health policy approach.

Society has historically demonized women's pleasure, even with food. A study⁶ showed that 50% of Japanese women associate high-fat foods and cake with guilt compared to only 9% of Japanese men. This may also relate to women and girls' distorted body image, thanks to society's beauty standards and the latest fad diets. 

It is no wonder that women worry about their appearance and feel guilty about enjoying food. This self-criticism often even extends to children, especially girls. We need to acknowledge the guilt around food and our other self-proclaimed guilty pleasures. We are allowed to like harmless things.

"Guilty pleasures" don't really exist

"Guilty pleasures" are merely a social construct designed to make us feel bad about our apparently less becoming habits. While we may use shame and guilt interchangeably, they mean different things. Let's check out the dictionary definitions according to Merriam-Webster:


  • A painful emotion caused by the consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety

  • The susceptibility to such emotion

  • A condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute something that brings censure or reproach a cause of feeling shame


  • The fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating the law and involving a penalty

  • The state of one who has committed an offense, especially consciously

  • Feelings of deserving blame, especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy

  • A feeling of deserving blame for offenses

Putting it into perspective, you've not committed a crime by reading a trashy magazine, and you have not brought your country into disrepute by enjoying an extra hour in bed. Let us agree that "guilty pleasures" are badly named at best or entirely non-existent

Dr. Kristen Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said, "When you feel guilty but haven't harmed anyone, you're just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism."

Feeling guilty stems from how we think society expects us to act. We are often told we have to do things a certain way – for example, that our hobbies must be educational or enriching, and time spent being unproductive is a waste. This mindset has links to gender norms, cultural standards, and "hustle culture." 

Cultural norms include the idea that pleasure is sinful, that's it's impure and self-indulgent. But our bodies are wired for pleasure. If we're not supposed to feel good, why did we evolve to feel this way? 

Dr. Sami Schalk remarked that women and other marginalized groups have historically been denied pleasure, so they've likely been associating it with guilt. Now, they're careful not to attach negative connotations to pleasure.

Schalk also noticed that rich, white men often decide what should be a guilty pleasure. She mentioned "how the concept of guilty pleasures is based in classism, racism, and sexism…Because "low brow" often means poor/working class, racialized or feminized things." This food for thought should help us look at guilty pleasures in a different light.

"Guilty pleasures" can protect us from depression

A 2015 study⁷ reported that practicing self-compassion by permitting yourself to enjoy things can help you cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Self-compassion can even be a protective factor against depression. There is a lot to be said for having empathy for ourselves and not expecting constant perfection. 

Life isn't easy, and when we're struggling, we need to be kind to ourselves. Indulging in the things that bring us joy can get us through tough times. 

As long as your guilty pleasure is harmless, there is no reason not to do it. Our brain's neural pathways light up when we do things we enjoy. This makes it easier to replicate feelings of happiness. 

Another reason we call them "guilty pleasures" is because the things we like might contrast with how we view ourselves. As humans, we want to have an identity, and we don't like things that deviate from that.

If you are a yogi who takes pride in their practice and associated healthy lifestyle, perhaps spooning peanut butter directly from the jar into your face isn't how you'd like to be perceived. But if you try to fit into the "yogi box" or hold a black and white view, how will you grow? 

Releasing yourself from the need to fit neatly into one little box allows you to begin to see the gray area in your personality. You can be a yogi and like spoonfuls of peanut butter. It's not one or the other. Denying a part of you isn't good for your mental health, and embracing your guilty pleasures is great for your self-worth and authenticity.

Who wants to be acting like someone they're not 24/7? Be you.

While you may think you need to spend your leisure time enhancing your skillset and learning, your brain needs time to rest. Cognitive rest is essential to good health, which happens when you're zoning out or doing something that doesn't require much brainpower. In this zone, your brain engages the default mode network (DMN). This rest is vital for optimizing your brain. 

Hustle culture might promote always working and improving, and while this is great for some aspects of your life, it is not helpful for your happiness. Constant problem-solving is exhausting for our brains. We need these breaks to recharge our mental batteries and help us handle stress better.

So pop on Netflix and give your brain a break. 

As we said earlier, guilt and pleasure can be so interwoven in our minds that feeling guilty can increase the pleasure we feel while enjoying our guilty pleasures. Rather than fighting them or trying to change them, welcome them. It might have a better result in changing bad habits and increasing your happiness. 

A 2016 study⁸ discovered that listening to nostalgic, cheesy music made people feel happier and more connected to friends who listened to the music with them. So our guilty pleasures can be a great way to bond and improve our mood. 

A 2014 literature review⁹ found evidence suggesting that some mindless video gaming can improve well-being, develop a feeling of accomplishment, and reduce stress. Online gaming can create friendships, further improving mental health. The study highlighted the importance of regulating gameplay as researchers discovered negative effects from too much gaming. 

Can we enjoy our guilty pleasures too much?

Of course, we should practice moderation even for the things that make us feel good. Sometimes, we use our guilty pleasures to cope with stress, procrastinate, and generally avoid things. This isn't good. If you're eating an entire cake or binge-watching Netflix until the early hours when you need to be up for work in a few hours, something else might be going on that you need to pause and look at. 

Guilty pleasures should be a tool to reset your brain and relax before being productive. They're a little gift to yourself as motivation to keep working hard during the day. It's smart to check in after spending time on something you enjoy: Do you feel inspired to be productive and get to work, or do you feel drained and unproductive? If it's not as beneficial as you thought, it might be worth adjusting how much time you spend on this pleasurable activity or swapping it out completely.

"Guilty pleasure" is so 2021

Perhaps it is time to drop the phrase that makes us feel guilty for downtime. We need time away from being productive to inspire us to keep going. Humans are not robots or machines. We need enrichment and nourishment, and we are allowed to enjoy small pleasures.

Taking time away from a busy day to watch some "trash" TV isn't a crime, so you shouldn't feel guilty if you're doing it in moderation. 

If you are still struggling with the idea of allowing yourself to enjoy things entirely and without judgment, ask yourself why. Is it the perfectionist in you? Do you always feel the need to be hustling? Who are you hurting by enjoying your early bedtime and cocoa? Kick the "shoulds" out of your life, they only exist to make you feel guilty, and negative thinking can rule your life. Reframe those thoughts with things like "it would be nice to wash up the dishes after this show" or "I'd prefer it if I could read this magazine before doing more chores." 

Our intense, unfair world regularly threatens our mental health, and we have enough to contend with without making our lives harder. So why not be a bit gentler on yourself and truly enjoy your guilty pleasures? After all, it's just another act of self-care, and that is so 2022.

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