What is anhedonia?

Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life? Has this wondering ever left you with a feeling of emptiness? Has the lack of pleasure in everyday activities stripped your life of a sense of meaning?

Of course, thoughts and feelings like these can happen to us all the time. And they do happen. They are part of everyone’s existence on this planet. We all have ups and downs, ebbs and flows, and there is nothing wrong in that—it is the nature of life itself. However, when we begin to constantly lose interest in our social surroundings, hobbies and everyday activities, our hedonic capacity seems to be dramatically depleted. In other words, we cannot cultivate positive feelings over time or we have a reduced capacity to experience pleasure.

The word “anhedonia” is derived from the Greek word “an” which means “without” and hēdonē, which means pleasure. The word literally means a lack of pleasure or decreased capacity to experience pleasurable and enjoyable activities. It is important to note that people who suffer from anhedonia complain about inability to sense pleasure in a way they used to before, but also have a hard time engaging consciously and willingly in the recovery process in order to feel better.

The symptoms of anhedonia can include social withdrawal, negative feelings towards self and others, a diminished capability to experience interpersonal pleasure, loss of libido, lack of pleasure in sexual and physical activities, depressed mood and flat affect. This is a common problem: A person who suffers from anhedonia also has a sense of loss of control over one’s own life.

Anhedonia might be a core symptom of depression, but also a risk factor for schizophrenia. However, anhedonia could be also caused by prescription medication (antidepressants) or usage of recreational drugs. It can be triggered by a traumatic event or series of traumatic events. Also, research shows that our experience of pleasure is somewhat connected to a circuit of brain, the cortico-ventral basal ganglia. Rise of dopamine, an organic chemical which serves as a neurotransmitter in basal ganglia, can elicit a pleasant sensation. Neurophysiological underpinnings of the lowered capacity to feel pleasure are giving us more and more insights into the nature of the problem and how to deal with it.

Essentially, anhedonia is inability to feel good. As such, it can dramatically diminish one’s quality of life. This kind of emotional flatness, usually referred to as a symptom of a mental disorder, can be really debilitating and a red flag that something might be wrong. Seeking help is strongly advised. The psychiatrist might help with a diagnosis and medication, but future psychotherapeutic work can help a lot, especially in dealing with traumas that lie at the core of anhedonia. For example, if the depression is considered to be one of the primary causes of anhedonia (since it can be a symptom of a major depression disorder), a combination of medication and personal therapy is often suggested.

The ability to experience pleasure in life is (obviously) very important. But self-awareness and alertness are critical, since a person who is aware that something is going on will seek for help in a timely manner and prevent future exacerbation of his/her mental health.