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What to Do When Nothing Feels Good

Feeling down in the dumps can be a symptom called anhedonia. Here’s what to do.

Imagine feeling blah, but on steroids. Or unmotivated, but bigly. Feeling like nothing is enjoyable (and that nothing matters anyway) is a serious symptom called anhedonia. Here’s a quick primer on what it is, plus two science-backed ways to beat the capital-B blahs.


I don’t feel like it.

Everything is terrible.

What’s the point?

Sound like your inner monologue right now?

If you haven’t been enjoying (insert activity that used to bring you joy), you have no motivation to see friends or get going, or you’re feeling generally ground down by the world, know that what you’re experiencing has a name: anhedonia.

Unlike hedonism (the concept, not the clothing-optional resort in Jamaica), which is the pursuit of pleasure and gratification, anhedonia is its opposite. With anhedonia, the brain’s ability to feel joy, satisfaction, or enjoyment gets put on mute. It feels like nothing really matters anymore. In other words, anhedonia feels like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps from her black-and-white world into Technicolor, except in reverse.

What’s at the root of anhedonia? It can be a part of burnout, PTSD, substance abuse, schizophrenia, or even Parkinson’s disease, but the granddaddy of anhedonia is depression. A study in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that 95 percent of people with major depression reported a loss of interest or pleasure—a virtual vaporization of joy from their lives.

Notice that the study used two particular words: interest and pleasure. Those two concepts are actually quite different and illustrate how anhedonia packs a one-two punch.

How? It turns out there are two types of enjoyment: anticipatory, also known as “wanting,” and consummatory, also known as “liking.” Think of the difference between looking forward to a vacation and actually being on vacation. There’s the excitement of planning and imagining in your mind’s eye what you’ll do and how you’ll feel. But then there’s also the pleasure of the moment—how you feel when you’re finally on the beach with your mojito, riding up the ski lift, or hiking down the trail in search of a blissful lack of cellphone coverage.

But in anhedonia, both wanting and liking are muted. Without “wanting,” you may not look forward to things or you may feel unmotivated. You can’t see the reward or pleasure at the end of the road, so why bother slogging down it in the first place?

Without “liking,” you may take no joy in things you usually love. It’s when a superfan doesn’t care if his team wins, the social butterfly withdraws from her friends, or the avid gardener lets his roses go to seed. Things we usually love—even food or sex—become one big “meh.”

So even if you try and you try, but you can’t get no satisfaction, what should you do? Anhedonia is tough to beat, but it can be done. Here are two research-backed ways to lift the fog.

Practice #1: Do what you usually enjoy and value, even if you’re not in the mood.

The way out of anhedonia is, counterintuitively, through the back door. Don’t wait until you feel better to do the things you love. Instead, do what you used to love, even if you don’t feel like it.

This is hard. It’s easy to get pulled down the swirling drain of inactivity and apathy because your brain and body get understimulated. Breaking the cycle takes a lot of effort, especially if you’ve felt depressed for a long time.

Luckily, doing what you used to love can be accomplished on many scales. Start with a small thing that takes two minutes, like blasting your favorite song, rubbing your dog’s tummy, or making homemade hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream. And sprinkles. Mmm... sprinkles. I digress: Whatever it is doesn’t have to be big. It may feel like just a drop, but drop by drop, you can fill an ocean.

Next, if you can’t bring yourself to be around people just yet, that’s fine. Stay in and do the things you love: make brownies, do some online yoga, work on your guitar riffs, or watch a comedy special (but don’t over-rely on the screen time). The point is to deliberately do things you enjoy and are in line with your values.

Eventually, schedule things that get you out of the house, even if you don’t see the point. Accept your friends’ invitation to meet at the grilled cheese food truck, go for a hike, or, as in one of my favorite client stories, sign up for the Mr. Leather contest at the corner gay bar, and to your surprise, win.

Psychologists call this behavioral activation, and if it sounds like fake it ‘til you make it, you’re right. It may feel fake, fleeting, or hopeless at first, but the reason it works is that it sets up a positive feedback loop. Your brain affects your behavior, but behavior also affects your brain. So do the things you love, even if you don’t feel the effects right away. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it’s fake until it becomes real.

A big asterisk: Don’t use this technique to be productive, get stuff done, or motivate yourself to do stuff you hate. The only goals in behavioral activation are meaning and happiness. So don’t use it to do your laundry or finally get to the post office.

Now, here’s a challenge: What if you’ve been depressed for so long that you can’t remember what you like to do? Think back to childhood. What did you love then? Do it again. If you loved riding your bike, plonk a helmet on your head and go for a spin around the neighborhood (or for the grownup version, sign up for a spin class). Bonus points if you get ice cream afterward. Did you love to draw? Take an online art class or sit on your stoop with your sketchbook.

Do these things even if it feels like you’re just going through the motions. It won’t feel the same as when you’re healthy, but it will likely feel better than doing nothing at all. If nothing else, getting out of the house will keep you from sliding further into the depths.

The takeaway? Don’t leave these actions to chance. Intentionally set aside time to do the activities you love and value, even if the forces of gravity get really strong right around your couch when it’s time to put on your shoes. There will be a million reasons not to go, but do your best not to listen to them.

Practice #2: Savor the good stuff.

Another practice to push back against anhedonia is called savoring. To savor, hold a metaphorical magnifying glass up to your hot chocolate, your hike, or your guitar riffs. Savor these small pleasures, instead of getting distracted by your phone, the news, or your thoughts.

Anhedonia tells you to discount these small moments of joy, to write them off as “just little things,” or to say, “Well, I didn’t feel better, so that was a waste of time.” Instead, notice with as many of your five senses as possible what you just did, even if you have to peer really closely to find any enjoyment. Lean into the smell of freshly-brewed coffee, the beat of your favorite song, or the warm and fuzzy energy of your dog.

In addition to paying attention with your senses, zoom in on any sense of pride, joy, or accomplishment you may feel. It will likely be small or fleeting, but pay close attention and revel in it to make it last.

And don’t stop with savoring the moment. In addition, you can bring to mind recent pleasures. Each evening, take the time to note three things you enjoyed that day. Actually write them down, in a journal or the notes section of your phone. That way, you’ll create a growing list of things—those drops that make up the ocean—that emphasize and reinforce pleasure, mastery, and joy.

In summary, do what you used to love, on a daily basis (at minimum!), before you feel like it. Tune into the experience using your five senses, and bask in it, even if it doesn’t seem like much. Eventually, you’ll find yourself stepping out the door and back into a world of Technicolor.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Evgeny Hmur/Shutterstock

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