Guilty conscience can damage your immune system

British Psychological Society annual conference

Feeling guilty about indulging in life's pleasures can damage your health - so if you want to stay in peak condition you should adopt a more hedonistic approach, psychologists said yesterday.

Research presented at the British Psychological Society's annual conference in Winchester showed that those who feel guilty about eating, drinking, smoking, watching television or having sex suffered from a poorer immune system, making them more vulnerable to colds and flu. The findings also suggested that women felt more guilty about their indulgences and were more likely to fall ill than men.

Dr Geoff Lowe, a chartered psychologist from the University of Hull, who conducted the research said that people would be healthier if they relaxed and enjoyed "sins" - as long as they are not harmful to them. "We ought to focus more on the positive things in life. If we enjoy simple pleasures that are not harmful to us we should not feel guilty about them. We should maximise the pleasure," he said. "We should take a bit of time to smell the flowers."

The findings showed that people who ate chocolate or watched daytime television soap operas felt more guilt than pleasure after the event. However having sex scored more than four times higheron pleasure than guilt. "If you anticipate having guilty feelings about something you are less likely to do it. Guilty feelings are helpful in moderating harmful behaviour but we also need a positive boost of regular pleasures in order to reinforce the right kind of behaviour," he said.

Dr Lowe and Dr John Greenman, an immunologist from Hull University, asked 30 people to list their pleasurable activities and rate them for guilt and pleasure. Samples of their saliva were taken and tested for levels of immunoglobulin A. High levels of this substance are associated with a healthy immune system.

The participants rated their pleasures and the guilt associated with them from one to 10. Overall people enjoyed drinking and eating, giving them a score of seven or eight on the pleasure scale, more than they felt guilty about them, scoring five or six, but the guilt of eating chocolate, rating eight, outweighed the pleasure, for which it scored seven. Men felt significantly less guilty about drinking alcohol than women.

Going shopping was only slightly more pleasurable than guilt-inducing, scoring eight out of 10 on the pleasure scale as against seven for guilt. The test group generally derived more pleasure than guilt from watching television, but reported feeling more guilty about watching the daytime soap opera Neighbours.

"Taking a single immune index is limited but it is consistent with what is going. We know the links between stress and health and what neurochemical functions are involved," Dr Lowe said.

The results suggest that those who report high pleasure and low guilt have an improved immune system function. Dr Lowe said: "Such observations provide empirical support of the increasingly held notion that pleasures are good and guilt is bad, for health."