Fun fact: The term “guilty pleasure” first appeared in The New York Times in 1860 to describe a brothel, and wasn’t featured with any regularity until the 1990s, according to The New Yorker. Today the term often describes any pleasurable thing, from eating dessert to binging TikTok videos. However, psychologists agree that it’s time to retire the term.

Why we feel guilty about pleasure

Our desire to deem certain types of pleasures as “guilty” may come from any number of sources, says trauma therapist Shannon Moroney, author of “Heal for Real: A Guided Journal to Forgiving Others―and Yourself.” Chances are, this internalized guilt stems from religious and cultural ideals condemning a “slothingly” existence in favor of a life spent at work, she said. There’s no doubt that hustle culture also contributes to this mentality, psychologist and researcher Rheeda Walker, PhD, added. “I can’t help but wonder if we just sort of have this embedded belief that we’re not supposed to enjoy ourselves,” she explained. “We feel like we have to earn pleasure; we have to earn joy; we have to earn peace of mind after we’ve worked ourselves into the ground.”

Of course, there’s something to be said for working diligently toward your goals and using your time to do good. But it’s impossible to do that without balance. 

If you think back to your childhood, you might remember that you’ve always internally known that breaks are the necessary counterpart to hard work. “We need pleasure. From the time we’re born, we need to be soothed,” Moroney said. “That’s what pleasure and soothing is. Guilt is just a social construct or religious concept that either makes people give up more, work harder, or submit to poor treatment. It’s a real manipulation.”

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How to take breaks that are good for you

One 2018 study of 66 female college students looked into how taking breaks increased their vigor (or “energetic arousal”) and their fatigue. The control group took no break, while the remaining folks took an unstructured rest break, an exercise break, or a “relaxation” break—which consisted of a six-minute body scan.  

The exercise and relaxation break both led to increased vigor and a decrease in fatigue. Walker also noted that structured breaks are especially valuable. “If you’re being mindful and saying, ‘I need a timeout,’ then maybe spread those timeouts across different types of activities,” she said. For example, maybe you limit yourself to one episode of “The Real Housewives”  so that you really enjoy it, and then move on to something else. 

Walker recommended looking at this self-care as a balancing act between adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. Adaptive behaviors allow us to function better socially, conceptually, and practically in our everyday lives. In contrast, maladaptive behaviors are behaviors that are detrimental to our well-being in the short or long run. 

Ideally, we want to do our best to let adaptive behaviors guide our pleasure. Below, we dive into the minutiae of a few everyday “guilty pleasures”—like the aforementioned Netflix binge—to show you that—all along—they were just tools for self-care in disguise. 

1. Eating your favorite snack 

For Moroney, it’s ketchup chips: the national chip of Canada. (Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!) After a tough day at work, the therapist makes sure to pour her chips into a nice bowl, turns on “Downton Abbey” and settles in for much-needed time with the fictional Crawley family. “If you want to do something that’s purely for the pleasure of it that doesn’t hurt anybody else and doesn’t have long term effects on you, then screw the guilt because otherwise, you’re just ruining [the moment] for yourself,” she said. 

You can apply the same logic to your own favorite snack or dessert (following any doctor-mandated dietary restrictions, of course). Just do your best to have some mindfulness around it.

2. Grabbing a coffee or drinks with a friend 

Socializing is an adaptive behavior and just so happens to be one of the most instrumental components of mental well-being. According to the Mayo Clinic, spending time with loved ones keeps loneliness at bay, boosts cognitive function and memory, and even promotes longevity. 

Walker is a big advocate of taking pleasure in your social connections—and actively planning to talk to friends and family for 20 to 30 minutes in your free time. That means that, as long as it’s within your budget, you don’t need to feel guilty for spending a little extra money to go out for drinks with a friend after a rough Wednesday; you’re investing in your future health and well-being. 

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3. Crying

Let’s face it: Sometimes a good cry is what we need. While many of us never felt guilty crying as a child, we all learned somewhere along the way that shedding tears is weak or a “waste of time.” Moroney wants us to take back those moments and give in to the emotional release. “I always say, whether it’s my daughter in my arms, or my client on the couch in my office, ‘Cry as hard as you can. Go for it,’” she said.

4. Watching T.V.

We’ve all watched so much television that our eyes glaze over, our hips ache from sitting on the couch so long, and we feel disconnected from our physical bodies. There’s no question that hours-long binges can become a maladaptive behavior in our lives, so Walker is all about setting a mindful boundary ahead of time. For example, maybe you watch a 47-minute long TV episode and then read for an equal amount of time. Make it fun! 

5. Taking a walk mid-workday

Maybe you feel the need to keep your green Slack light aglow or answer your emails the moment they come in. But even if you only have two minutes, Walker recommends getting some fresh air.

“The [self-care practice] that seems to be impactful for anyone is stepping outside. Many of us are indoors most of the day, so stepping outside and noticing the environment—even if it’s not going for a full 15 to 20 minute walk—increases mindfulness,” she said. Not to mention, going outside—as long as you’re in a safe environment—has been shown to lower blood pressure and stress levels.

A final note on pleasure and guilt 

Building mindful boundaries around our pleasure benefits us in just the same way as making mindful boundaries around our work. While not every pleasurable moment has to fall into that adaptive category, balancing our less adaptive faves with our more adaptive ones (like going for walks or coffee dates with friends) is the sweet spot for self care. 

We won’t always get it right—but there’s always another opportunity to read that book, squeeze in 20 minutes of exercise, or dive into a meditation practice another day.

The Calm app offers guided meditations, mindfulness programs, breathing exercises, and bedtime stories that can help you unwind. Feel better, inside and out.

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