Guilty pleasures: The forbidden fruit

behaviour

Guilty pleasures: The forbidden fruit

under wraps What’s yours?

Yes, we know what you will do next. Login to Facebook and assuage all those feelings by a simple status update. “I just licked clean a pot of cream.” Friends will rush to like it, some will give banal advice, some will put up smileys. End of pleasure.
Aren’t we all guilty as charged?

Even Michigan researchers agree with me. Their new research on ‘guilty pleasures’ suggests that when we are actually doing what pleasures us, our brain, unsurprisingly, is only thinking of the pleasure and not its moral overtones or undertones. It is only later when we think back on our action that we associate with it feelings of guilt or embarrassment.

Consider for an instant that in a moment of abandon, you completely enjoyed a Himesh Reshammiya number (now, admit it, you were hooked to Jhalak Dhiklaja.) While you were singing along, you were only happy and satiated. It is only later when you tell your friend how much you hate Reshammiya’s singing that you start feeling ‘guilty’ for having experienced the pleasure of singing along to that catchy number. From that moment your brain ‘remembers’ your guilt even though originally there was none.

Fashion and celeb magazines looking for fillers have quite neatly murdered the impact of the phrase ‘guilty pleasures’ by asking all and sundry to list out their guilty pleasure reads, guilty pleasure movies, guilty pleasure foods blah blah, day in and day out. The phrase has become so clichéd that when you ask people what their guilty pleasure is, they list the most innocent of acts like eating an extra piece of chocolate in the night, listening to ABBA, reading Jane Austen, taking unplanned breaks, skimming through fashion blogs and taking “slightly over-budgeted” holidays as pleasures that make them feel guilty.

I swear I am not making these up. Since when did humans become so morally uptight that mundane overeating and inane indulging started to make them feel guilty?

When I asked around for more such guilty pleasures and chided people for acting so innocent, somewhat more interesting ones tumbled out. (Nobody minded spilling out their secrets but nobody wanted to be identified — its ‘guilty pleasures’ after all!)
A Kenyan friend says her guiltiest indulgence is “sitting in the toilet for you-know-what for ever”. She says her pleasure at prolonging this holiest of rituals is almost “sensual”. Another says his guilty pleasure was fantasising in lurid detail about making love to a cousin. My Ukrainian acquaintance says his first thought was to confess about trawling the Internet for porn. “But then, I don’t feel guilty at all doing it. So that’s not guilty pleasure, is it?”

Nope, it is not. Such not-so-guilty pleasures abound. The majority of them are either food-related or sex-related. Sometimes, it is stealing a smoke when parents are around and sometimes it is stealing money to buy alcohol. But mostly it is dreaming of making love to somebody, watching “outdoor porn” whatever that is, scanning agony aunt columns for sex-related queries, masturbating, dreaming of and I quote, “an incense-filled room full of wind chimes, with a lovely hunk massaging my entire body with purifying oils” or eating pot noodles raw, midnight fridge raids, chocolate, chocolate and chocolate.

Oh yes, there is a third category as well. The not-so-guilty but oh-so-gross pleasures category. Under this come confessions such as “getting a thrill by removing goo from my ear and smelling it”, “sniffing my underarms to smell the sweat and liking the smell” “going stealthily into the bathroom every morning to eat aspirin and toothpaste together because it was a delicious combo”, “picking my navel while watching TV” and “plucking my chest hair to pass the time.”

Such pleasures so inspired eight women from St Louis in the US that they actually got together to write a book of essays titled Guilty Pleasures: Indulgences, Addictions and Obsessions.

The eight women remain anonymous but share intensely personal stuff in their essays and cover a wide range of indulgences from sleeping with married men to taking anti-depressants to extorting money from parents. The women call their effort ‘an anti-self-improvement book’!

But like always, the Germans can be relied upon to come up with a slightly weightier (more sinister?) interpretation of the concept. They have a military-sounding word for it too, no offence intended! ‘Schadenfreude’, they call it. There’s no exact translation but roughly it means ‘malicious joy’ or pleasure felt at the misfortune of others. 

Now, that’s more like it. If you tell me, the person who sat next to you on a bus irrigating his nose inspired hate in you for no apparent reason but the fact that he was torturing his own nose and you felt hyena-like laughter bubbling inside you when he missed his stop, I would call that guilty pleasure. More seriously, this is perhaps what prompts a collective roar of approval when a matador is pierced in his stomach by a charging bull or inspires shouts of support you hear in the background in grainy YouTube videos showing the Taliban stoning a young woman.

Orhan Pamuk in his delectable autobiography Istanbul describes a feeling not dissimilar to Schadenfreude but more akin to the Latin phrase delectatio morosa or ‘the habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts.’

He narrates how he would cheer himself up when he was all of six, by imagining he was killing people. He coolly recounts how he would lavish affection on a cat, only to strike it cruelly the next instant and emerge from that moment with a bout of laughter that would make him so ashamed that he would shower the cat with love again. Did I hear sadism?

You don’t exactly need a scientific study to trace the root of such joys. But studies have been conducted and they confirm that our brains are basically shit stations. When we see others going through ill-luck, we feel happy about ourselves. And scientists add that this happens more with people who have a low opinion of themselves. Worse, the joy multiplies (and the pleasure centre in our brain actually ‘lights up’) when we see misfortune visit those whom we envy.

It takes a Mahatma Gandhi to turn this concept on its head and add a dash of piety with his famous advice to feel blessed by looking at those who are worse off than you rather than envy those who are better off than you.

Gandhi might have given a pious twist to this guilt business but it is to Oscar Wilde’s advice that human nature actually responds to.

In his iconic work The Picture of Dorian Gray (which is by itself a paean to pleasure and guilt), Henry, Dorian’s friend and guide counsels the hero with this classic line: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

There. That’s why it is remarkably easy for me to confess my very own once guilt-
ridden pleasure. I confess to always, always keeping an eye out for men’s eyelashes. The longer they are, the more curved they are, the more pleasure I get. It is an obsessive but now guiltless pleasure. After all, Wilde did tell us all what to do, didn’t he? When you give in to the temptation, the guilt is assuaged.
He would have approved of status updates.

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