Guilt-free glee

Why can't we simply enjoy the things we enjoy?

Have you noticed how the concept of pleasure often comes in only two forms: guilty or pure? It can apply to anything that we claim to enjoy. From belting out power ballads to eating custard doughnuts, no activity is immune from judgement, it seems.

Sometimes, it’s society at large that judges our taste. I’ve often found that the term “guilty pleasure”, when applied to certain music, art or films, for example, just means popular stuff that I really like. It’s a judgement that’s easy to rise above and dismiss as snobbery. However, I’ve come to realise that at other times, I’ve been guilty (so to speak) of that snobbery myself.

It’s well known that food pleasures can come loaded with guilt. That self-generated emotion prevents us from properly savouring a triple-chocolate brownie – unless, of course, it’s a gluten-free, sugar-free, raw triple-chocolate brownie, in which case it suddenly morphs into its diametric opposite – pure pleasure.

I’ve been through all kinds of mental gymnastics in order to label my pleasures as pure. I’m neither coeliac nor vegan, and yet, somewhere in my brain, I’ve absorbed the idea that I can only enjoy a treat if certain boxes are ticked. The truth is that a brownie, however it’s made, contains sugar and energy-dense ingredients to make it sweet and delicious – one might be slightly more nutritious than the other, but that doesn’t make it virtuous.

I’m beginning to realise that the concept of pure pleasure implies there’s an opposite, and that both labels are equally unhelpful. That’s also true when what we call a guilty pleasure doesn’t, in reality, give us pleasure at all. A social media takedown might give us an uneasy sense of schadenfreude – the experience of joy or self-satisfaction in
another’s misfortune – but that’s not pleasure, which equals a series of bliss-hits to the brain, generating serotonin. It’s actually null freude – zero pleasure – instead.

What I’ve really enjoyed is the transgressive nature of the guilty pleasure. There can be a thrill in naughtiness, in going against the grain of who we’re “supposed” to be. With that in mind, perhaps “guilty” and “pure” should be redundant when it comes to the stuff we enjoy. Maybe now it’s time to ask a different question: does this give me pleasure? If the answer is yes, then let’s start to enjoy the pleasure of pleasure. For in that, there’s nothing to feel guilty about at all.


  • Be proud of the music and art you love, whatever others say.
  • Remember to ask yourself: does this give me pleasure?
  • If the answer is yes, take time to properly enjoy that hit of judgement-free bliss.
  • If you’re still labelling, ask if this activity is really sending you pleasure signals. Does mindlessly scrolling through social media elevate your serotonin? If not, perhaps it’s time to drop the “pleasure” tag.
Words by Stephanie Lam

This article was originally published in Breathe Issue 27, All in good time - View Magazine

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