Many of us have an annoying tendency to feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure. A shopping spree, an extra-decadent dessert — they’re pure fun, in theory, but as often as not, there’s a little bit of guilt or shame worming its way into your brain to taint the whole experience.
As Brad Stulberg has explained for Science of Us, the problem is that we often fail to recognize that indulgence comes in degrees. “Every action we perform has two outcomes, the familiar hedonic value (the yumminess of eating ice cream) and a less obvious signal value (a message you send to yourself about what kind of person you are),” he wrote. Eating a sundae with every one of your meals clearly isn’t the best life choice, but going all-in on a pint of ice cream every once in a while won’t kill you — but still, once the container is empty, you briefly see yourself in a different light: Suddenly, “you’re the sort of person who scarfs pints.”
The same thing is true of the mother of all guilty pleasures: the Netflix binge. Think back to the last time you bulldozed your way through several seasons in a single weekend: It sounds great, but odds are you also felt a little bad about all that time spent staring at the TV screen.
Well, don’t. As Elizabeth Cohen, a communications professor at West Virginia University, recently argued in the Conversation, TV binges aren’t necessarily anything to be ashamed of — in fact, they can be a worthwhile use of your time. “Even though watching TV gets a bad rap as the ‘junk food of media diets,” she wrote, “it can be good for you — as long as you give yourself permission to indulge”:
For one thing, Cohen noted, our attitudes toward television have yet to catch up to the age of peak TV. In fact, as writer Steven Johnson has argued in the New York Times, as shows have become increasingly complex in recent years, watching TV has become a more cognitively stimulating activity. “Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads,” he wrote. “Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties.”
Besides, despite what your gut may tell you, there’s nothing wrong with using TV as a pleasurable means of escapism — or “gorging on stories,” as Cohen puts it. Some research has shown that watching with someone else can help to strengthen a relationship (provided no one commits Netflix adultery and secretly skips ahead); another study found that watching TV has de-stressing benefits — but, notably, only when people can banish their guilt for watching in the first place. So, to sum up: Go for it, and if you’re feeling bold, maybe grab a pint of ice cream and a spoon before you hit play.
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