Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pleasures without guilt

Sometimes (most days) I have the interesting experience of starting off with a particular train of thought, and ending up somewhere so far away that it's akin to travelling from Australia to Russia.

Quite often, I'm not even sure which original thought triggered the extensive detour to where I ended up.

This week I got to reflecting on the term 'guilty pleasures'. I think this may have been triggered by a comment from someone at work, around their enjoyment of a particular coffee shop hot chocolate. 

You see, I find the term 'guilty pleasures' to be a horrible contradiciton in terms. I don't think pleasures should be guilty, or induce guilt. 

I am also someone who is quite prone, I assume for personality-based and genetically influenced reasons, to feeling guilty. I have a tendency to blame myself when things go wrong and can feel guilty about just about anything at all. That can be a topic for another day (or not), but the reality is that I don't need, or want, to be feeling guilty about things I enjoy, on top of everything else.

The interesting thing is that guilt has been classified as a "primary emotion". It's one of the emotions that people are hard-wired to experience, along with joy, love, interest, sorrow, surprise, fear, disgust and anger (or some variations on those, depending on what list you look at). And primary emotions are thought to have adaptive value, either for physical or social survival. They're distinguished from "secondary emotions" (e.g., feeling ashamed about feeling sad) because secondary emotions are more complicated, are learned over time, and stem from thought processes and particular beliefs or values.

However, in the form it's experienced today, guilt often doesn't have an adaptive value. 'Guilty pleasures' certainly don't. Feeling guilty about hurting a friend is adaptive; you won't do it again and will (hopefully) maintain your friendship. In contrast, feeling guilty about sleeping in, drinking a hot chocolate, or buying something you don't 'need' is unlikely to change your behaviour. If it did, people would do those things once and stop.

What's more, feeling guilty about those behaviours is dependent on viewing those behaviours as somehow 'bad'. All of the examples above could cause problems if done to excess on a regular basis, but they're not likely to cause problems if they occur in moderation. Most things cause problems if done to excess.

In light of all of the above, I propose to re-name 'guilty pleasures' as 'small pleasures'. If your guilty pleasures are large scale, and/or involved breaking the law, perhaps disregard this post and consider seeking help. But if not, enjoy what you enjoy! If you're going to drink your hot chocolate (or whatever it may be), make the most of it. Otherwise, what is the point?

Plus, imagine how much harder advertising companies would have to work  if they could no longer sell products as 'guilt free' because they're reduced fat, artificially sweetened, on special, or available with a 'bonus gift'...

So, ranting aside, what would some of my small pleasures be?
  • Eating whilst reading. I know you 'should' focus on your food. I really do. But the combination of food and books will always hold a frisson of enjoyment for me that is entirely disproportionate to the activity.

  • Spending 30 minutes in the supermarket when I popped in for a single item. Coming out of said supermarket with the planned single item and two or three bonus unnecessary items.

  • Re-reading children's books. There are many, many books written for adults that I haven't read, and I know it might be sensible to prioritise these over re-visiting childhood favourites. But sometimes childhood favourites are what I want. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books are a big contributor to this category, and I like them just as much now as I did at age 5. I think I must have read each book at least 10 times. I also liked (like!) Mary Grant Bruce's Australian Billabong series (I secretly wanted to be in the Billabong series), Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain, anything ballet or gymnastics related, and of course much more.

I learnt to read on the Laura Ingalls Wilder series...and like them just as much 20+ years later. 

Mary Grant Bruce was kind enough to provide 15 books in the Billabong series. In contrast, Ballet Shoes was one of a kind, but Noel Streatfeild managed to fit a lot into a single book.

  • The completely unnecessary and over-priced purchased coffee that creeps into my mornings at least once per week.

  • Going to the movies, even though I could wait and see the film for free eventually (although I actually only go to the movies a handful of times per year).

  • Using the heater (and sitting virtually on the heater) when it's not technically winter yet, and/or it's not technically that cold. In the same category, staying in the shower for an extra minute because it's too cold to get out.

What would your small pleasures be? Are you able to enjoy them without feeling guilty?


  1. Oh your last guilty pleasure resonates with me a lot. But my husband turned the central heating off a couple of months ago, now I cuddle my hot water bottle.

    I do find myself standing udner the shower for far too long than I care to admit.

  2. This made me smile. I've got a draft post sitting waiting, titled 'Guilty Pleasures'. I may just have to go and rename it now...can't tell you what it is just yet though, there is still a touch of guilt :-)
    There is something about rereading those childrens books as an adult that is a whole lot of wonderful. I don't think that magic is quite the same as the first times I read them, but so many happy feelings wound up in just having them around. I've got a whole shelf of these said books... and yes haven't reread Laura I Wilder, but must do that.

  3. @mangocheeks
    Hot water bottles are great :) Although turning the central heating off sounds a little mean! Hopefully the water bottle and shower are making up for it.

  4. @cityhippyfarmgirl
    Sorry to interfere with your post!! That is funny though, and it's nice to know I'm not the only one pondering such things.

    I'd definitely recommend re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, they certainly provoke happy feelings and provide a sense of escapism.

  5. I all but clapped with glee when you mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder! I've actually said this a few times on my blog, but I think you're a fairly recent reader so I'm going to repeat myself :) I have read those books so many times that I all but know them by heart, to the extent that if I see one of the pictures from any of the books, I can tell you exactly what happens in that chapter :D LOVE!

  6. @Hannah
    That makes me so happy :) I hadn't seen your Laura Ingalls Wilder references (I might go back and search for them!) but am thrilled to hear I'm not the only person who is slightly obsessed with her books. I wish more children today read them, I feel like my childhood would have lacked a certain something if they'd not been included.

  7. Very interesting post Kari! Some may say it's just semantics, but I think it's important to give thought to these 'throwaway' lines. I'm also like you, and completely prone to feeling guilt for anything and everything, and stirring up more unnecessary guilt like this is..well, unnecessary.

    Also, omg the Billabong series! I LOVED that when I was younger. I borrowed them all off a friend of my mother's so I don't actually have any copies myself, but I think a visit to the library to relive the magic might be in order. The books always smelled so old too, adding to the olden days mystique ;)

  8. @Conor @ Hold the Beef
    I hope you re-enjoy the Billabong books if you look them up! Library books (and libraries for that matter) did always have an air of excitement about them.

    I'm also glad you grasp the semantics behind my rambling :) Whilst I wouldn't wish a guilt-prone personality on anybody, it's rather nice to know I'm not alone in my tendencies!

  9. I loved noel streatfield when I was a child - and could easily re-read them today - I don't see why adults shouldn't read children's books - it is one of those arbitrary categories that just limit our capacity to enjoy the world! As for guilty pleasures - a disordered house and an ordered blog must be one of mine


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