Guilty Pleasures (and how to get the most out of them)

guilty pleasure All of us have them. Pleasures we shouldn’t enjoy but we just can’t help ourselves. Food tends to be the most common source although music, film or TV supply plenty of tacky, sophomoric drivel to enjoy. But if we enjoy them why do they make us feel guilty? Why not just give up the guilt?

It is a rule never to be violated that any discussion of guilty pleasures must first start with a confession. So I admit to occasionally tapping my foot to a tune from Jack Johnson or, from another era, Neil Diamond. But my biggest guilty pleasure is meat fat. Whenever I trim steaks, chops or roasts I will cut off hunks of fat to cook up into crispy snacks of blubbery, greasy goodness.

Disgusting huh.

There are different kinds of guilty pleasures. There’s the doing-something-that’s-bad-for-you guilty pleasure—eating meat fat, making a whole pint of ice cream disappear during episodes of Survivor. And there is the I-like-that-but shouldn’t guilty pleasure—listening to Jack Johnson, watching reruns of Jersey Shores, craven late-night trips to Taco Bell. These kinds of examples are usually trivial, but some guilty pleasures have more serious implications—laughing at offensive jokes can be inappropriate and finding profound aesthetic delight in the depiction of evil can be troubling. (What about it Dexter fans?)

Of course, there is the pleasure that becomes obsessive and out of control and that leads you to do something genuinely harmful to yourself or others. Self-mutilations of various sorts or obsessively hording whatever turns you on so no one else can experience it—in these cases it is obvious why one should feel, if not guilt, at least remorse or regret. Set these cases aside; they are a different animal. Most guilty pleasures involve no real harm.

So why feel guilty? I suspect it is because the guilty pleasures are revealing. They show that we lack self-control because we are unable to maintain a standard that we have set for ourselves. We know we should hate fast foods and silly pop songs but we are too weak to adhere to those exacting yet self-imposed standards.

But why not revel in the pleasure? Shouldn’t we feel guilty for not enjoying something as much as we could? It is tempting to say that some things don’t need to have deep meaning. Silly pop songs, campy films, food that is nothing but fat and salt don’t have to conform to standards. We can enjoy them for what they are without worrying about whether they are hackneyed, shallow, or unsophisticated.

But no. That approach to guilty pleasure would ruin all the fun. If we let ourselves off the hook, subtracting the guilt from the pleasure, we would not find that satisfying at all—because the guilt is part of the pleasure. Anything you’re told not to do can produce pleasure when you do it even if it is you that is doing the telling. We get pleasure from thumbing our nose at authority especially when the authority is that hectoring, rule-obsessed part of the self that is normally in control. But it is that part of the self that is expressed in the guilt, so the guilt must be there. It’s not holding us back from experiencing pleasure—feeling guilty and standing up to it creates its own frisson, its own thrill.  If you didn’t feel guilty about rooting for Dexter the show would lose its appeal. If you didn’t feel guilty about inhaling a Volcano Taco (or three) it would just be a bad taco.

So by all means enjoy what you enjoy. But don’t forget that the guilt is part of the equation. Without guilt, pleasure is just pleasure—how boring.



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