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Staying young

“We need pleasure to survive”

A glass of wine and a smoke… don’t tell mum. Getty

Reading this very newspaper last week, says Jessica Grose in The New York Times, I was sad to see a headline declaring “Even a Little Alcohol Can Harm Your Health”. Especially having just learnt that “my gas stove may be killing me”, that I’m eating the “wrong carbs” and that processed meat shouldn’t be a “regular habit”. What these draconian health warnings never seem to discuss is the role – maybe even the necessity – that simple pleasures play in our lives. Doesn’t the joy we get from a glass of wine offset any physiological drawback? Doesn’t a rich meal “nourish your soul”, even if it raises your cholesterol? “I have a cigarette or two a year – don’t tell my mum.”

When I asked academics who study pleasure and happiness what their research had to say on the matter, “they didn’t mince words”. “We need pleasure to survive,” says Oxford neuroscience professor Morten Kringelbach. A full, flourishing life requires plenty of “meaningful pleasure” – that’s just how the “machinery of the brain” works. And how much difference do these health fads really make? Well, says University of Pennsylvania health professor Ezekiel Emanuel, apart from the “six commandments of wellness” – eat well, exercise, no smoking, wear a seatbelt, sleep and socialise – “we don’t really know specifics”. But whatever crazy health kick you’re on, how much is it going to add to your life? A few months? Is it really worth sacrificing the guaranteed joy of a bacon and egg sandwich for the hope of a little extra time aged 90? Personally, I’d prefer to live like Sister André, who died this month aged 118. “She had a bit of wine and chocolate every day.”