Let's take the guilt out of 'guilty pleasure'

When I began researching for a column on so-called "guilty pleasures," my first stop was Google. Lo and behold! There were a lot of stories from 2020 about how guilty pleasures are actually good for us.

That makes sense. Thanks to the pandemic and lockdowns, 2020 was a big year for guilty pleasures, whether that was binge watching something on Netflix or indulging in your favorite ice cream.

Why, in the first place, do we feel guilty about those guilty pleasures? Because it's a uniquely human trait when we can't help comparing ourselves to others.

Research tells us that the "guilt" comes from enjoying something you think others may look down upon. Maybe you like reading an author whose writing is dismissed by critics - pre-"Bridgerton," that may have been true for readers of Julia Quinn's romance series about Regency-era England. I know more than one person who binged on that steamy Netflix series and didn't necessarily talk about it!

As they said back in the '60s, "If it feels good, do it." Rather than being ashamed or embarrassed about your guilty pleasures, research shows some of these very things help us relax, decompress and practice self-care.

Robin Nabi, a professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializes in the effects of media on emotions. She told The New York Times recently that, even though a guilty pleasure doesn't solve anything or make problems go away, it could reduce your stress and improve "your perception of your ability to handle it."

Neuroscience says feel-good activities may even release dopamine, improve mood, create a sense of well-being and feelings of positivity, and lift anxiety and depression. Matt Glowiak, a New York-based therapist and professor, explains that scientists have found areas of the brain called "reward pathways."

During the pandemic, many people stayed at home and binge-watched TV show. Stock Photo

"Beginning in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), neurons release dopamine, which ultimately leads toward our experience of pleasure," he told Wellpath. "Because the reward pathway is connected to areas of the brain that control behavior and memory, we continually engage in behaviors that attempt to satisfy that gratifying experience."

Anything harmless that can benefit us like that is nothing to feel guilty about.

I think the key word here is "harmless." There are plenty of activities that provide pleasure that are not harmless, such as drinking to excess, smoking or misusing prescription drugs. Those habits are shown to cause long-term harm to both physical and mental well-being.

Speaking of drugs, with the growing movement to legalize marijuana use, pot is going from "guilty pleasure" (and one that could get you arrested) to just a pleasure. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported in 2019 that monthly marijuana use among those age 26 or older has shown steady growth and was up to 22 million Americans nationwide. Personal possession and use of marijuana became legal in Illinois in 2020, and we can expect its usage to grow among people who never used it before, or used it a long time ago.

Can it be harmful? Yes. Can it be used with care to provide pleasure? Also yes, but as with alcohol, it pays to be a smart consumer.

My own "guilty pleasure" over the past year has been comfort food, as long as I exercise daily and mostly eat healthy. And I love to entertain again, now that things are opening up.

One of my longtime nursing friends and her husband are coming over for meatloaf and mashed potatoes … yum! We will laugh, remember old times and talk about what is filling our souls with joy during these days. My dopamine levels will be sky high!

So I think we can safely retire the term "guilty pleasure." It's just pleasure, and guilt has nothing to do with it.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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