Engaging in pleasurable, mindless activities is actually beneficial.
There is a phrase you should eliminate from your vocabulary, and that is "guilty pleasure." We all have them – those little interests and habits that we're reluctant to talk about because they're less erudite than we aspire to be in other aspects of our lives. And yet, research has shown that they're actually good for us. Indulging in mindless pleasures such as reading a trashy novel, watching a sizzling romance film, or binging on reality TV, can be a de-stresser and happiness booster, as long as we're not overdoing it.
In an article for The New York Times, psychology professor Kristin Neff from the University of Texas explains that we are conditioned by society always to be engaged and productive, otherwise we're wasting time; however, having something to do besides constant problem solving is healthy. She is quoted in the Times, saying that
"'flow states,' like meditating, playing sports and, yes, consuming media, can help our brains rest and recover by providing a reprieve from problem-solving mode."
Research suggests that watching TV reduces stress levels. Of course one's problems don't disappear, but a short reprieve from thinking about them can improve your perception of your ability to handle it. Similarly, "giving ourselves permission to enjoy down time is also an important part of self-compassion, which is an effective way of combating anxiety and depression."
Nor should we feel guilty about doing something that we enjoy that doesn't hurt anyone else. In Dr. Neff's words, "When you feel guilty, but haven’t harmed anyone, then you’re just in the realm of perfectionism or criticism."
But the notion of guilty pleasures not being so guilt-inducing after all is at odds with America's puritanical beginnings and its Protestant work ethic, which views pleasure as "sinful and bad and self-indulgent." This mentality is slowly dissipating as society moves further away from those Christian beliefs, but it still lingers today. (I've experienced this in my own rather traditional family, where sleeping in is "slothful" and TV "melts the brain.")
The key is to use moderation. When our not-so-guilty pleasures are enjoyed in small doses, without threatening our productivity at work and home, then it can make us happier, more relaxed individuals; but let it take over your life (hello, social media) and you won't accomplish much at all.