06/05/2011 12:23 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2011

The Case for Cheesecake and Hot Fudge Sundaes

The fantasy that President Obama would celebrate his Bin Laden triumph by enjoying a cigarette reminds us that an American president would sooner sneak a few puffs in some dark corner of the White House than publicly partake in such a "sinful" pleasure.

Our ambivalence about pleasure doesn't just apply to politicians. Few of us can bask in the joy of a mocha latte or a hot fudge sundae without associated feelings of guilt, shame or even moral failure. A woman I once dated took perverse pleasure in depriving herself of what she called "life's guilty pleasures." She was thin as a rail but considered it essential to seek out "duckless duck," "cheeseless cheesecake" and other foods whose very names link satisfaction with self-denial.

I'm not talking about those who struggle valiantly with addictions and compulsions. Nor do I worry over the rare "normal" beings we encounter from time to time who have the knack for non-excessive self-indulgence.

It seems there's a silent majority of garden-variety neurotics who have internalized the notion that if something feels heavenly, there will be hell to pay later. And I have a word of advice for us: it's time we scaled back the moderation of pleasure in favor of the pleasures of moderation.

Take that mocha latte. Caffeine can feel great, but a cultural inner voice tells us it's poison. One anti-coffee website reads like the script for Reefer Madness: "Nearly 80 percent of the world's population uses caffeine, and 25 percent of the population is diagnosed with a mental disorder. Clinical studies indicate that there may be significant overlap between those figures."

If you're not literally going caffeine crazy, you may be hurting your health: A Danish survey found that a woman who drinks eight or more cups of coffee a day is three times likelier to have a stillborn baby. Sure, and if you drink eight glasses of carrot juice a day, you will soon be indistinguishable from an actual carrot.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism somehow forbids coffee but allows caffeinated Vanilla Coke, has sought fundamentalist cred by associating evangelical Protestants and Mormons as Pepsi vs. Coke. An aide explained, "But sometimes Pepsi and Coke have to team up to stop Starbucks from taking over the market." Here Starbucks represents not only the evils of mocha lattes, but also the secularism that self-proclaimed moral arbiters on the Right say is destroying our country. (The musical "Book of Mormon" underscores this absurdity with a number called "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream," which groups together Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and, yes, Starbucks.)

Romney and his fellow "anti-government" Republican presidential hopefuls, of course, want it to be illegal for gays to enjoy the pleasures of marriage or chronic-pain sufferers to seek the blessed relief of medical marijuana.

It's no wonder we have a troubled relationship with our pleasures: we're whipsawed between messages of consumerism/hedonism and Puritanism. On the one hand, capitalism is built atop (what Max Weber, the German sociologist called) the Puritan ethic -- saving, thrift, industry, hard work. But contemporary capitalism can't survive on a nation of savers and workers. It requires consumers. So, as Tom Frank shows in his 1997 book "The Conquest of Cool," Madison Avenue coopted (perhaps anticipated by a decade) 60s counter-culture/rebelliousness to make it hip for people to express themselves by buying ever more stuff.

The logical extension of Puritan extremism can be found in Gary Shteyngart's 2010 novel, "A Super Sad True Love Story," which hilariously depicts a future in which every detail of human existence is constantly, scientifically monitored. That way, Americans can eliminate any pleasure that might shave even a moment from the miserable eternal life that is our destiny.

The good news is that for most of us there's no danger in a single sundae or a cupcake. (There are checks and balances -- if you find yourself drawn to consumables with names like Venom, you may have gone too far.) As for cheeseless cheesecake, it's probably loaded with soy, which is hardly fat-free. So unless you're vegan or lactose intolerant, why not go for the real thing?

The better news is that there's something concrete we can do to diminish the guilt that only seems inextricably intertwined with pleasure. When you notice yourself simultaneously indulging and catastrophizing, catch the moment and try to rewrite the script. Repeat to yourself -- maybe even out loud, if your boss or significant other isn't around -- that every human action doesn't have an equal and opposite reaction, that feeling pleasure needn't lead to pain. Nor, just as important, does that feeling of pain do anything to restore equanimity to the universe, post-cheesecake.

There's a plethora of research that shows that this kind of cognitive training, like practicing scales on a piano, can, over time, change the structure of our brains and mitigate our irrational fears.

Of course, balance is the goal. Freud pretty much nailed it when he observed that a healthy ego "no longer lets itself be governed by the pleasure principle, but obeys the reality principle, which also, at bottom, seeks to obtain pleasure, but pleasure which is assured through taking account of reality."