We all have them — even if we don’t admit it publically — guilty pleasures. It may be anything from spending an entire weekend playing the new release of Call of Duty to binge-watching five seasons of The Office to devouring one of those gossip magazines cover-to-cover. Even the name “guilty pleasure” implies that you’re doing something you shouldn’t. Well, I’m here to tell you to quit feeling guilty about indulging once in a while.
Your brain and body are literally wired to seek pleasure. This is how our ancestors were motivated to find food, shelter, and mating opportunities. It’s all tied to your brain’s reward circuit and the neurochemical dopamine. Enjoying yourself is a natural part of life. You do not have to feel ashamed, and you do not have to earn it.
Your brain needs it.
Your Brain Wasn’t Meant To Be “On” All the Time
In Why You Need To Give Your Brain A Break, I write:
The brain is much more active – and more likely to tire – than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of, not counter to, working, can make a person more productive, creative, and innovative.”
Your brain needs little breaks during the day, and it also needs larger blocks of time away from everything — work, school, and the stress of your life periodically to revitalize and renew. Your brain will benefit from some time where it is not asked to be productive. By depriving your brain of downtime, you diminish your ability to think creatively and strategically handle complex problems. Our brains can establish new connections and see patterns not obvious to the conscious mind when we step out of the hectic routines of our lives, stop rushing from one obligation to the next, and just relax.
Giving your brain a vacation is important because it potentially allows you to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have shown that high levels of cortisol damage the brain’s hippocampus, the learning and memory center. Reducing stress is essential to brain health.
Pleasures with Brain Benefits
I dropped the word “guilty” here because you don’t need to feel guilty. While guilt can sometimes be a healthy motivator, when you stigmatize and restrict a behavior as “bad” it doesn’t help you feel good about yourself. Studies show that it also can make you more likely to overindulge. It’s normal and healthy to embrace your need for pleasure — and meet it once in a while. (I’m not talking about things that are truly harmful to you.) Just remember, too much of a good thing is never a good thing.
Spending an afternoon watching the latest season of your favorite show or curled up on the couch reading a sci-fi thriller isn’t going to hurt your brain. In fact, here are some pleasures with brain benefits in addition to the ones you get just from giving your brain a break.
Whether you read textbooks, the latest best-sellers, or steamy paperbacks, you’re giving your brain a workout with every page you turn. Science has determined that reading benefits your brain in many measurable ways. It is a proven fact that reading can help reduce stress. Many of us have so much “required” reading in our daily lives. When is the last time you read for pleasure? Reading can be a wonderful and healthy escape from the concerns of everyday life. Simply by opening a book, you allow yourself to be invited into a literary world that distracts you from your daily stressors. I have started reading books again for pleasure, after too long a hiatus, and I love it. When I’m not into a book, I’m not ashamed to say that I love to flip through a gossip magazine.
Playing Video Games
Video gaming usually gets a bad rap, but it’s not all bad. On the downside, studies do show that gaming can be addictive and correlate with increased depression, anxiety, impulsiveness, and poor concentration. However, playing video games has also proven to have numerous mental benefits.
Gaming can make your brain smarter, better, faster, and stronger. Research shows that gaming improves hand-eye coordination and problem-solving and decision-making skills. It has even proven to increase neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, brain size, and connectivity. Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist, conducted experiments showing that people who played action-based video games reacted faster and had better focus. They also exhibited an ability to analyze different situations rapidly. A recent study found that people who were gamers in childhood performed better at working memory tasks, even if they no longer played.
Listening to Music
A review of scientific studies on music and health determined that listening to music has many benefits for your body and mind. In addition to reducing anxiety and helping many aspects of mental health, music can also boost your immune system. Research shows that listening to music can reduce anxiety, depression, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, memory, increase some cognitive functions, enhance learning and concentration, and ward off the effects of brain aging.
Music is so good for your brain because it is one of the few activities that stimulate your whole brain. Because music is structural, mathematical, and architectural based on relationships between one note and the next, it’s a total brain workout. Some studies show that it can make you smarter. It may even help ward off the effects of brain aging.
Watching entertainment media can give your brain a total break. I know, for me, when I’m engrossed in a show, I’m transported to a different time — not thinking about the pandemic or my to-do list. Watching movies encourages emotional release. Even people who have trouble expressing their emotions might find themselves laughing or crying during a show. This release of emotions can have a cathartic effect and help you destress. There’s even a real thing called “cinema therapy” prescribed by mental health counselors.
Taking a Nap
I love napping and take a brief nap almost every afternoon. Various studies indicate that daytime napping is beneficial for people of all ages. Research confirms that naps can help improve memory and that even napping for just ten minutes has brain benefits. Another study concluded that seniors who napped had better cognitive and physical health.
In addition to giving your immune system a boost, having sex can lower stress. Whether you’re with someone or going it solo, orgasms increase endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers. They also raise oxytocin which promotes trust, relaxation, better mood, and sound sleep. Some research has even shown that having sex can encourage neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells, decrease depression and anxiety, and make you smarter.