What we think of as "guilty pleasures" are actually good for our mental health, psychological research shows. It's feeling guilty about them that's bad. That's the message of a New York Times Smarter Living column that questions whether any pleasure that does no harm to anyone should ever be labeled as "guilty."

Take me. I have lots of deadlines and today I'm way behind on meeting them. However, I have also played my way through 15 levels of the game Two Dots. I feel really bad about that, but maybe I shouldn't. The Times explains that, while we all believe we should spend our leisure time in uplifting pursuits that sharpen our minds and widen our understanding, in fact just like every other organ, your brain need rest. While constantly learning and problem-solving might have been good for our ancestors' survival, it's not good for our happiness, Kristin Neff, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Texas told the Times. And research shows that the happier you are, the more productive you're likely to be.

As the column points out, the guilt associated with what we call guilty pleasures usually comes from our understanding of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" leisure activity -- and these distinctions tend to be pretty arbitrary. For example, it's common to say something self-deprecating or apologetic about the fact that you never miss The Bachelor, while no one would ever apologize for watching the NBA playoffs. Yet, neither is all that intellectually stimulating. And as some Bachelor fans have pointed out, both are occasions for people to get together, drink, make predictions about who will win or lose, and yell at the TV. So maybe there's no good reason to consider one of these two things an honorable way to spend an evening and the other a source of shame.

What we watch does not determine who we are.

The real problem may be our beliefs about what our choice of leisure activities says about who we are. Sports events are watched by successful executives while reality TV is watched by minimum wage earners, or so the stereotype goes. But that only tells us what assumptions advertisers make, not really anything about ourselves. You can spend as many hours watching Kardashians as you like, and it won't make you any dumber, or any less moral, or any worse at your job. I promise.

The worst thing you can do is convince yourself that it will. Intriguingly, the Times notes, the more you consider yourself bad for indulging in something like reading a romance novel or watching I Dream of Jeannie reruns, the more likely you may be to overdo it, the way I did with Two Dots today. Research shows that dieters who have been taught the importance of self-compassion are more likely to go back to their diets after falling off the wagon, while those who get angry at themselves for cheating are more likely to cheat some more. So whatever you do, don't chide yourself for the hours you spent engrossed in cute animal videos on YouTube. That will only destroy the very real benefits of the rest you just gave to your brain.

Published on: Dec 30, 2019
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