A guilty pleasure is any thought, activity, or behavior that is personally enjoyable while also evoking feelings of shame or embarrassment.
These feelings of shame and embarrassment often stem from a feeling that the activity or thought is:
- Socially unacceptable, or
- Unhealthy, or
- Inconsistent with our personal identity
Guilty pleasures can be anything from eating certain types of food to watching television shows or movies that are frowned upon.
For example, a person who usually enjoys reading literary novels may feel guilty for liking trashy romance novels because it’s not consistent with their personal identity as intellectually sophisticated.
Guilty pleasures can also include indulging in reality TV shows, playing video games, or even relishing gossip magazines despite knowing they lack credibility and contain fabricated stories.
While such pleasures can evoke feelings of guilt and discomfort, they tend to offer a sense of escape from daily psychosocial stressors. They allow individuals to relinquish control and embrace silly and carefree activities without the fear of judgment.
Definition of Guilty Pleasure
A guilty pleasure is a behavior or activity that provides joy and excitement to an individual but may also elicit negative emotions such as guilt and shame due to its perceived social disapproval (Stall et al., 2004).
According to Semi Schalk for The New York Times, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
“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” (Higgs, 2019).
Scientists argue that the brain’s reward system and its associated cognitive processes are scientifically responsible for this phenomenon (Seidemann et al., 2021).
Indulging in guilty pleasures triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that brings about feelings of joy, enthusiasm, and gratification. Consequently, these indulgences can make us feel happy (Carver et al., 2008).
Engaging in pleasurable activities like eating tasty food or listening to music triggers dopamine release within our brains (Stall et al., 2004).
However, at times indulging in these pleasures can lead us into conflict with our morals and ethical understanding, potentially leading to complexity over time.
The negative emotions that come along with guilty pleasure stem from areas of the brain involved with awareness, managing emotion regulation, and moral judgment.
It generates self-related emotional attributes like shame or guilt due to the violation of beliefs toward societal expectations (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).
10 Examples of Guilty Pleasures
- Binge-watching TV shows: This is when you sit down and watch an entire season or even series in one day. It feels great at the time but can lead to feelings of guilt or regret later on.
- Eating junk food: Whether it be chips, candy, pizza, or ice cream – indulging in unhealthy foods once in a while can make you feel guilty due to the potential health consequences.
- Online shopping sprees: Sometimes you’re just feeling down and want to treat yourself. The thrill of buying new things online can provide an instant boost, but the act of spending too much money can bring on feelings of guilt later.
- Looking at an ex’s social media posts: Even if you know, it’s not healthy behavior, checking up on an ex-partner through their social media accounts can be difficult to resist.
- Scrolling through social media for hours: It’s easy to get lost in the endless stream of updates from friends, family, and celebrities, but spending too much time on social media can lead to feelings of guilt and the sensation of “wasted” time.
- Taking naps during the day: A daytime snooze can be refreshing, but the guilt may set in when you think about the time you could have spent being productive.
- Skipping work/exercise responsibilities for a lazy day: Slacking off occasionally is okay, but skipping obligations for extended periods because it feels good can create guilt.
- Listening to music that others may not consider “cool”: Maybe your friends think your favorite band is passé or cheesy; however, listening to what makes you happy should never make YOU feel ashamed.
- Singing loudly in the car: It can be a lot of fun to belt out your favorite tunes while driving, but the potential embarrassment of being caught in the act may make you feel guilty.
- Playing video games for hours: It’s easy to get lost in a virtual world and spend hours playing your favorite video games, but guilt may arise when you feel like you’ve neglected other responsibilities.
- Watching reality TV shows: Mindless entertainment is fun every now and then, but divulging in it constantly might make you feel like you’re wasting time that could be spent elsewhere.
- Taking long baths/showers: Sure, they’re relaxing and give us time away from our daily routine, but running water excessively can use too many resources leading some people to feel guilty for their energy usage.
- Reading celebrity gossip magazines: While sometimes lighthearted and exciting, reading about other people’s lives purely for enjoyment’s sake might leave one feeling shallow later on.
- Collecting figurines or other “childish” items: Many people enjoy collecting things that bring them joy, like action figures or stuffed animals, but they may feel guilty for indulging in hobbies that others might deem immature.
- Staying up too late: Late nights can give us more time to indulge in our favorite shows or books, but over time sleep deprivation can take a toll on the body and mind leading to feelings of guilt.
Reasons for Guilty Pleasure
Guilty pleasures offer both escape and satisfaction, so they tend to give us great pleasure (Reid, 2022).
Here are five possible reasons why we have guilty pleasures:
Life can often be stressful due to a long to-do list of activities and responsibilities.
Hence, taking some time off through indulgence in activities we enjoy, such as reading via various channels, can break up the monotony and provide moments of relaxation, leading individuals to enjoy and accept them (Goffin & Cova, 2019).
2. Sense of Rebellion
Guilty pleasures often exist because society has imposed some sort of taboo or stigma around the activity/habit (Reid, 2022).
Choosing to participate could result in feelings of rebellion against societal standards, with people feeling like they are pushing back against societal norms.
3. Connection with Community
Guilty pleasures could also become a way for people to connect with others who share similar interests or perceived ‘outcast-like’ behaviors, creating an “us versus them” mentality that builds connections between individuals with similar values. This can occur, for example, within countercultural groups.
4. Emotional Needs
Indulging in our guilty pleasures on occasion may satisfy our personal emotional needs, such as coping during times of high anxiety or depression by soothing unpleasant emotions such as sadness, loneliness, grief, etc (Reid, 2022).
5. Desire For New Experiences
Pursuing new experiences could perhaps lead someone down a path unexplored (Goffin & Cova, 2019).
Trying something new or different satisfies our desire to nurture curiosity and expand our horizons, which eventually lead us down paths less retraced – sparking joy within us.
Benefits of Guilty Pleasure
Engaging in guilty pleasures can be beneficial, from relieving stress to improving mood and self-care (Goffin & Cova, 2019).
Here are five potential benefits of indulging in guilty pleasures:
- Stress Relief: Indulging in activities that bring joy, like listening to music, soaking up a luxurious bath, or diving into a fascinating novel, can relieve stress and a peaceful sense of relaxation.
- Improved Mood: Guilty pleasures that bring joy and pleasure, like social media scrolling or watching your favorite TV show, could lead to psychological rewards such as feeling happy and instantly lifting up one’s mood without needing external assistance from medication.
- Self-Care: Certain guilty pleasures like eating snack foods or indulging in sweet treats allow us time to focus on ourselves, enjoying simple pleasures while separating ourselves momentarily from daily responsibilities and treating ourselves nicely.
- Human Connection: Occasionally embracing our guilty pleasures creates possibilities for connecting with others who share similar interests; it provides an opportunity to explore new experiences together, thus enriching one’s social life.
- Sparking Creativity: Taking on activities seemingly unrelated but regularly enjoyed also provides opportunities for new ideas that could serve purposefully across multiple aspects of life, expanding people’s horizons beyond their normative instincts.
Consequences of Guilty Pleasure
Indulging in guilty pleasures can certainly be enjoyable and a great way to blow off steam or fill an idle hour. However, if done excessively, they may lead to some undesirable outcomes (Baumeister & Vohs, 2007).
Here are five possible consequences of having guilty pleasures:
1. Health Issues
Some guilty pleasures like eating unhealthy foods and watching TV all day can affect people’s physical health.
Consuming an excessive amount of unhealthy snacks can contribute to obesity and other illnesses.
Whereas spending too much time watching television instead of being physically active or eating nutritiously puts one at greater risk for developing cardiovascular issues.
2. Financial Issues
Indulging in materialistic items like fashion or power equipment shopping sprees could lead to overspending, negatively impacting someone’s overall financial well-being.
Overindulging in some activities could quickly become an addiction resulting in obsessive behaviors, stimulating a rewiring of neural pathways, and bringing about dependency.
4. Damage to Self-Esteem
Continuous consumption of guilty pleasures over an extended period, especially those frowned upon, may impact mental health and damage self-esteem and self-worth.
5. Strained Relationships
While “guilty” pleasures occasionally serve as moments during which people recharge their batteries – constantly engaging in these behaviors/habits gets categorized as obsession, which alienates loved ones.
Taking up more time than is reasonable for such activities could lead to resentment between partners.
Strategies to Cope with Guilty Pleasures
If guilty pleasures are beginning to take over and cause distress, people can practice mindful indulgence, moderation, acceptance, reframing mindset, and embarking on paths of self-discovery.
Here are some strategies that can help people cope with guilty pleasures:
1. Mindful indulgence
Instead of feeling guilty about enjoying a guilty pleasure, it’s possible to mindfully indulge in the activity and accept that it is a pleasurable experience.
By practicing mindfulness techniques, one could savor and esteem the pleasure provided by such activities, increasing acceptance whilst attaching positive feelings to them.
Engaging in enjoyable activities is okay; it’s just important to keep things within reasonable limits and avoid getting lost entirely in indulgences.
So, you should be setting aside time in advance for relaxation spas and reading time while accounting for scheduled responsibilities. Indulging moderately provides a healthier balance between work and self-care commitments.
Practicing self-love by accepting & seeing oneself as human, inevitably prone to making mistakes, creating an internal environment without self-shaming or guilt.
People would appreciate ‘guilty’ pleasures more if they came from a place of confidence rather than apprehension.
4. Reframing Mindset
Changing the dialogue where instead of categorizing certain actions/habits as bad or negative, using alternative labels makes them feel less intimidating.
This new mindset shifts the perception surrounding these behaviors, turning them into healthy ways to manage stress, relax or have fun.
This strategy may include embarking on paths towards understanding oneself better by exploring topics such as, ‘What do I really enjoy doing?’, Why do I Engage in This Activity? and ‘What impact does this activity have on my life?’.
Answering these questions can help people be more aware and understand why such activities bring about pleasure and/or discomfort.
Guilty pleasures can be daunting due to the fear of being judged or shamed by others. However, embracing them rather than rejecting them is important, as they often bring joy and happiness into our lives.
It’s essential to understand that guilty pleasures are a normal human experience, and everyone has them. They do not indicate weakness or moral deficiency but reflect our unique individuality and personal taste.
A healthy balance between indulging in guilty pleasures and living a responsible life can coexist.
However, we should keep in mind that if we strive for perfection all the time, it will lead to burnout because we need both positive and negative experiences to create balance.
In essence, you should enjoy your guilty pleasure occasionally without feeling bad about it or letting it control you. Being true to ourselves is crucial for mental health and well-being, leading to long-term happiness.
Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Encyclopedia of social psychology. New York: Sage Publications.
Carver, C. S., Johnson, S. L., & Joormann, J. (2008). Serotonergic function, two-mode models of self-regulation, and vulnerability to depression: What depression has in common with impulsive aggression. Psychological Bulletin, 134(6), 912–943. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013740
Goffin, K., & Cova, F. (2019). An empirical investigation of guilty pleasures. Philosophical Psychology, 32(7), 1129–1155. https://doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2019.1646897
Higgs, M. M. (2019, July 2). “Guilty” pleasures? No such thing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/01/smarter-living/guilty-pleasures-no-such-thing.html
Reid, M. (2022). Guilty pleasures revisited. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. https://doi.org/10.1093/jaac/kpac002
Seidemann, R., Duek, O., Jia, R., Levy, I., & Harpaz-Rotem, I. (2021). The reward system and post-traumatic stress disorder: Does trauma affect the way we interact with positive stimuli? Chronic Stress, 5, 247054702199600. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547021996006 Stall, S., Harry, L., & Spalding, J. (2004). The encyclopedia of guilty pleasures. London: Quirk Books.