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Too many people are losing the health benefits they get from doing the things they enjoy because of unnecessary guilt. According to an international research study published today 41% of people in the UK would enjoy their every-day pleasures more if they did not feel so guilty.

Scientists know that enjoyment relieves stress and enhances the immune system, but now say that needless guilt reduces this enjoyment as well as the quality of life, undermining both mental and physical health.

These are the conclusions of ARISE (Associates for Research Into the Science of Enjoyment)(1) in the first international study to examine the relationship between pleasure and guilt (2).

UK second in international pleasure league

The ARISE study covered attitudes in eight countries to 13 everyday pleasures, including sex, having a glass of wine, a piece of chocolate, a cigarette, tea or coffee and watching TV.

  • The British come second in the overall international "pleasure league," but they are above average when it comes to feeling guilty afterwards, a contradiction ARISE scientists say could be bad for our health.
  • The Dutch have the most relaxed attitude to pleasure. They enjoy themselves more than anyone else and do not get bogged down in the guilt trap.
  • The Germans rank bottom of the league for enjoyment and when they do let themselves go, they feel more guilty than anyone else in Europe.

Needless guilt: a no-win situation

Professor David Warburton, founder of ARISE and Head of Psychopharmacology at the University of Reading in the UK, said: "Guilt acts as an important social check on personal behaviour, such as preventing people from committing crime. However, it can be misplaced when it is related to lifestyle.

"In its extreme, guilt can impair attentiveness making people forgetful and more prone to error. Chronic guilt can induce stress and depression which could lead to eating disorders and contribute to infection, ulcers, heart problems and even brain damage."

Guilt undermines pleasure

The ARISE study, "The value of pleasures and the question of guilt", shows that the more guilty people feel about something, the less they enjoy it. Nearly half (43%) of Europeans said they would enjoy themselves more if they did not feel so guilty, rising to 52% in Italy.

Professor Warburton said: "A number of common pleasures - such as eating chocolate and sweet things, smoking and lack of exercise - attract high levels of guilt, perhaps reflecting the high profile of health campaigns which have affected the way people view their pleasures. People should not feel guilty about pleasure-giving activities. as long they don't over-indulge or harm others.

"Unfortunately health campaigns often send conflicting messages and it is interesting that the survey shows one in two people (51%) resent authorities constantly telling them what is good and bad for them. Conversely, few people feel guilty about enjoying sex and listening to music, which both have very high pleasure ratings."

In spite of feeling guilty about their pleasures, most people do little about it. One in three (33%) simply carry the burden of guilt with them as part of life.

Pleasure is good for you

Dr Neil Sherwood, Psychopharmacologist at the University of Reading and ARISE associate, said: "Laboratory studies show that people choose their pleasures in a rational and deliberate way designed to enhance their quality of life in any given circumstances. A favourite treat, such as a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of wine or beer, a cigarette or a bar of chocolate reduces stress and helps people relax.

"When people get caught in the guilt trap those choices are distorted and people either try to sacrifice their enjoyment or live with the guilt. This can undermine the positive benefits of enjoyment which studies show can protect against stress and strengthen the immune system.

"People need to feel able to make their own informed choices about their everyday pleasures without feeling guilty. This is the only life we are likely to have, and we should live it to the full, as long as we aren't harming others."

Personal pleasures

The 13 every-day types of enjoyment fall into three separate "divisions" for pleasure and four for guilt. These show an inverse relationship between pleasure and guilt. The "first division" pleasures, listening to music and sex, both had very low guilt ratings.

Second division pleasures include sport and exercise, eating out, eating dairy products, drinking tea and coffee and shopping for treats. Still rated highly but placed in the third division, three pleasures (eating chocolates, smoking and eating sweet things like cakes and ice-cream) fell into the "first divison" for guilt.

International Pleasure League (3)

1 Netherlands

2 United Kingdom

3 Australia


4 Italy

5 Switzerland

6 Belgium

7 Spain

8 Germany

International Guilt League (4)

1 Australia

2 Germany

3 United Kingdom

4 Switzerland


5= Italy

5= Spain

7 Belgium

8 Netherlands

Division Pleasurable activities (5)

1 Listening to Music


2 Eating out

Sport and exercise

Cheese, cream, butter

Tea and coffee

Shopping for pleasure

3 TV and videos

Eating chocolate

Cakes and ice-cream


Red meat

Beer, wine, spirits

Division Guilty activities (5)

1 Lack of sport and exercise

Cakes and ice-cream


Eating chocolate

2 Beer, wine, spirits

Shopping for pleasure

TV and videos

3 Red meat


Cheese, cream, butter

Eating out

Tea and coffee

4 Listening to music

ARISE: scientific background paper


  • The "science of pleasure" is relatively unexplored.
  • Pleasure increases enjoyment, reducing stress and enhancing the

immunity system, thus making a positive contribution to overall good


  • People choose their pleasures for rational and purposeful reasons,

according to the desire to adjust their psychological state

  • This pleasure can enhance the immune system and reduce stress.
  • Conversely, guilt can increase stress and undermine the immune system
  • Well-balanced guilt acts as a valuable constraint on antisocial human


  • Unnecessary guilt can drive a dangerous psychological wedge between the

"ideal" and the "real" self, further enhancing stress levels and

undermining the immune system.

  • This can lead to, for instance, forgetfulness, eating disorders, heart

problems or brain damage.

The Science of Pleasure

The benefits of pleasure and enjoyment are seriously undervalued in both science and society. Scientific studies show that enjoying the simple pleasures in life, without feeling guilty, can reduce stress and increase resistance to disease.

Relatively little is known about the science of pleasure because scientific and medical exploration have tended to be based on a "disease" model of life which has taken "health" as a base line and measured deviations from that.

Instead of focusing on illness, mortality, morbidity and disability, the "science of pleasure" uses a broader base from which to assess the quality of life.

The Functional Model

A variety of activities such as holidays, family gatherings, meals out, eating chocolate and other products are employed by people to engender happiness and to cope with the stressors of modern life.

This common-sense experience can be explained by the Functional Model (1) of human behaviour which proposes that pleasurable activities provide resources which can alter the psychological state in a preferred way.

Research (2) shows that the reasons people choose any particular activity or product can be divided into five principal categories:

  • to heighten enjoyment
  • to counter stress, anxiety or depression
  • in social situations
  • as a regular feature of everyday life, and
  • to regulate arousal

The current study, illustrates that the relative importance of each of these motivations depends on the product or activity which is being enjoyed.

"Hedonic utility"

Research suggests that individuals choose their pleasures according to the "hedonic utility" they will get. In other words, people's choices depend on how far and in what circumstances each activity can enhance their quality of life.

For instance, laboratory experiments have shown that chocolate, coffee and smoking can improve performance on cognitive tasks (3) and so enable people to cope better with the demands of the workplace.

The psychological effects of some of these products can be assessed objectively in the laboratory. The caffeine equivalent of one or two cups of coffee, a glass of wine, a few puffs on a cigarette and three or four pieces of chocolate can make people calmer, more relaxed and generally happier (4).

The hedonic utility people get from any given activity is reflected in the current survey where there are clear (and significant) differences between first division pleasures such as sex or music, second division pleasures such as drinking tea and coffee or exercise and lower division pleasures such as eating chocolate and smoking.

A further benefit, largely unrecognised, is the evidence that enjoyment can boost the function of the immune system and protect the individual from a range of illnesses, from the common cold to heart disease and cancer (5).

Constraint of guilt

Even if the opportunity to indulge is made available, our behaviour is still constrained by psychological considerations, primarily guilt and worry over the consequences of our actions.

Guilt operates as a control to avoid exploiting other people (6), but the present survey suggests that today as many as 40% of people feel guilty about the things they enjoy, even though many partake in moderation and are not harming others.

The real and ideal self

The conflict between the lifestyle we have and the lifestyle we feel we should lead has been investigated in research which showed significant differences between the "real" and the "ideal" self.

The research shows that the ideal self is perceived as significantly more alert, slimmer and fitter. It eats more "healthy" food and less "unhealthy" food. It is more attractive and generally more desirable than the real self (7). The distance between the ideal and the real can be psychologically harmful.

Living up to the internal expectations of the "ideal self" can be a major source of stress and cause guilt for most people. This can be compounded by calls to alter our lifestyles which can increase the gulf between thc ideal self and the real self, creating potentially dangerous psychological dichotomies.

In the current survey, it is interesting to note that the top items in the guilt division (eating sweet things, chocolate, lack of exercise and smoking) have all featured as targets of health campaigns.

Consequences of guilt

Most people have passing feelings of guilt as a natural part of their everyday life. For some this can be intense and prolonged.

People often dwell on guilt-producing events, wishing these could have been avoided. This excess guilt is an "intrinsic stressor" that can be carried from one situation to another, having adverse consequences for information processing, mental and physical health.

Consequences for information processing

People with some psychiatric conditions, like anxiety and depression, which have guilt as a component, can have problems processing information. This failure of concentration largely stems from an inability to divert the mind from brooding upon some painful or threatening topic (8). Mental activity becomes dominated by these intrusive guilty thoughts. Put another way, guilt "captures" the limited attentional resources for lengthy periods, leaving few reserves to deal with other than the most pressing external demands.

In these conditions actions can slip and memories lapse. Indeed, the presence of these intrusive ruminations places the guilt-ridden person in an "unbalanced divided-attention dilemma" (9). Thus, task-irrelevant ruminations dominate the restricted conscious "workspace". This hinders or prevents the processing of task-relevant information and the person becomes absentminded (10).

Under normal circumstances, people hold part of their limited attentional resource in reserve to guard against the errors which have unacceptable consequences. In other words, when crossing a road people normally take care to watch out for traffic - but negative life events, such as severe guilt, can divert attention elsewhere making mistakes more likely.

Guilt and depression

Guilt has long been viewed as a source of chronic mental disorders and is frequently associated with depression (11). This link has become so well accepted that measures of guilt are also used as indices of depression (12). Thus, "excessive or inappropriate guilt" is one of the nine clinical criteria used to diagnose major depression (13).

Chronic feelings of unresolved guilt can spiral, providing an ongoing source of selfdegradation and an endless reminder of the failing that originally evoked the guilt. Internalising these feelings can eventually give rise to depression (14).

Guilt and eating-disorders

Guilt-induced depression can result in eating disorders (15) of which self-punishment is frequently a component (16)

In turn, this can lead to a vicious spiral in which people with bulimia, which is characterised by "binge" eating, often try to alleviate their guilt by forcing themselves to vomit, starving themselves or exercising compulsively (17). They then try to cheer themselves Up by bingeing, and the spiral continues:

Depression - Bingeing - Guilt - Vomit - Self-loathing - Depression - Bingeing

Consequences for physical health

Chronic guilt, as an "intrinsic stressor", increases levels of stress hormones which can lead to infection, cardiovascular and gastro-intestinal problems, and brain damage.

Human stress hormones such as cortisol (hydrocortisone), adrenalin and noradrenalin, are essential for surviving acute physical stressors, but they can cause adverse effects (such as infection, ulcers, heart disease and cancer) when secretion is sustained.

Cortisol has even been implicated in causing brain damage (18). Sustained levels of cortisol secretion, resulting from chronic guilt, could decay the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for cognitive functions like memory (19).

Loss of hippocampus has also been found in patients with "Cushing's syndrome", which is characterised by the overproduction of cortisol (20) and can lead to depression, baldness, diabetes and facial hair growth, even among women.

In addition, both therapeutic and experimental administration of cortisol to people results in memory impairrnent. It has even been suggested that it might explain the dramatic differences between people in cognitive ageing.

Thus, as sustained stressors, cortisol overexposure can damage the human hippocampus, the implications for chronic, severe guilt are considerable.


(1) Warburton 1987

(2) Warburton, Sherwood et al, manuscript in preparation: The motivations were identified in research which asked 319 subjects to rate their frequency of their use of alcohol, coffee, chocolate, savoury snacks, tea, tobacco, over-the-counter medications and prescription medications in a variety of situations over a period of 30 days. Statistical analysis of the responses showed that the same five factors could explain the motives which lay behind the use of each product.

(3) Warburton, manuscript in preparation; Warburton 1995; Sherwood 1995

(4) Warburton 1995; Cooper et al 1995; Gilbert 1979; Warburton, manuscript in preparation

(5) Berk et al 1989, Dillon et al 1985; McCratey 1996

(6) Gilbert 1989

(7) Warburton, McKenna et al, manuscript in preparation: The research covered mental alertness, weight, amount of exercise, consumption of fruit, consumption of chocolate, and how attractive they thought themselves. In each case, 240 subjects were initially asked to rate themselves on a scale of I (worst) to 8 (best). Subsequently they were asked to rate how they would like to be in an ideal world.

(8) Goldberg, 1972; Horowitz, 1979

(9) Eyseneck 1982,1984

(10) Reason and Mycielska, 1982

(11) Harder, Cutler and Rockart, 1992; Kugler and Jones, 1992 and Harder, 1995; Zahn-Waxler. Cole and Barrett, 1991

(12) e.g. Beck, 1967; Blatt, 1979; Kovacs, 1992

(13) as defined by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) American Psychiatric Association, 1994

(14) Harder, Cutler and Rockart, 1992; Kugler and Jones, 1992

(15) Bybee et al, 1996

(16) Striegel-Moore et al. 1986

(17) Johnson and Larson, 1982

(18) Sapolsky, 1996

It has been known for some time that excessive exposure to glucocorticoids (GCs) has adverse effects in the rodent brain, particularly in the hippocampus, a structure vital to learning and memory and possessing high concentrations of receptors for GCs. A few days of stressors or GC overexposure compromises the ability of hippocampal neurons to survive seizures. Over the course of weeks, excess GCs reversibly causes atrophy of hippocampal dendrites, whereas GCs overexposure for months can cause permanent loss of hippocampal neurons.

(19) Significant reduction on the volume of the hippocampus have been found in people with a history of depression. Remarkably, there was a significant correlation between the duration of depression and the extent of decay and many people had abnormally high levels of cortisol. Studies of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders have shown a 25 per cent reduction of the volume of the hippocampus in the brain.

(20) When this happens, there is a correlation between the extent of cortisol secretion, the decay of the hippocampus and impairnents to, for instance, memory which depends on the hippocampus.


Argyle M (1987) The psychology of happiness. London: Routledge.

Berk L, Tan SA, Fry WF, Napier BJ, Lee JW, Hubbard RW, Lewis JE and Eby WC (1989) Neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. American Journal of Medical Sciences 298, 390-396.

Black PH (1995) Psychoneuroimmunology: brain and immunity. Scientific American Science and Medicine. Nov/Dec, 16-25.

Bybee J (1996) Guilt, guilt-evoking events, depression, and eating disorders. Current Psychology 15, 113-127.

Cooper ML, Frone MR, Russell M and Mudar P (1995) Drinking to regulate positive and negative emotions: a motivational model of alcohol use. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, 990-1005.

Dillon K, Minchoff B and Baker K (1985) Positive emotional states and enhancement of the immune system. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 15, 13-18.

Eisenberg N (1986) Altruistic emotion, cognition and behavior. Hillsdale N.J.: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.

Gilbert DG (1979) Paradoxical tranquilizing and emotion-reducing effects of nicotine. Psychological Bulletin 86, 643-661.

Gilbert P (1989) Human Nature and suffering. Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McCraty R, Atkinson M, Rein G and Watkins AD (1996) Music enhances the effect of positive emotional states on salivary IgA. Stress Medicine 12, 167-175.

Reason JT and Mycielska K (1982) Absentminded? The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Engletvood Cliffs N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Sapolsky RM (1996) Why stress is bad for your brain. Science 273, 749-750.

Sherwood N (1995) Effects of cigarette smoking on performance in a simulated driving task. Neuropsychobiology 32, 161-165.

Warburton DM (1987) The functions of smoking. In: Martin WR, Van Loon GR, Iwamoto ET and Davis DL (Eds.) Tobacco smoking and nicotine: a neurobiological approach. New York: Plenum Press, 51-61.

Warburton DM (1995) The effects of caffeine on cognition and mood without caffeine abstinence. Psychopharmacology 119, 66-70.

Warburton DM (In Preparation) The effects of chocolate on cognition and mood. Warburton DM and McKenna F (in preparation) Ideal self, Real self.

Warburton DM, Sherwood N, Thompson D and Warburton S (In Preparation) Patterns of legal product use among adults.

Notes to editors:

1 ARISE is an apolitical, international affiliation of more than 50 independent scientists and academics from a range of disciplines including neurochemistry, psychopharmacology, psychology, sociology, medicine and philosophy. The Associates believe that pleasure is undervalued in today's society and that the growing climate of healthism can be counter productive to our well-being.

2 The ARISE study, "The value of pleasures and the question of guilt" is available from the ARISE Secretariat, PO Box 11446, London SW18 5ZH. 220 pages of data, £550.

The research is based on telephone interviews with 4000 adults in eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) conducted for ARISE by Harris Research during August and September 1996. The international pleasure league is based on the responses of 4000 adults in eight countries. They were asked to score each of 13 every-day activities on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 is no enjoyment at all and 10 is extremely enjoyable). The mean scores of each activity were added together to give the overall mean total.

4 The international guilt league is based on the average percentage of people that said they 'sometimes or often felt guilty' about enjoying the 13 every-day products and activities.

5 The divisions of pleasurable and guilty activities are based on the aggregate mean scores for each pleasure. The statistical reliability of the sample sizes means that specific scores for each cannot be given. Instead they are grouped together into statistically significant divisions.


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