There is a terrifying specter that faces many with mental illness called anhedonia, which is the lack of ability to experience pleasure. It is about as daunting as the definition sounds, and it is widely misunderstood- in my opinion- by those who write about it clinically.
The big issue is that it is primarily (and often only) linked to depression in anything written about it. While anhedonia and depression do correlate with each other for sure, there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes to create a world in the mind that does not have the ability to receive pleasure. “Receive” is a key word here, which I’ll get to in a bit.
I have bouts of anhedonia, and I happen to have very little of what anyone would clinically consider “depression.” I’ve got a lot of stuff going on up there in my head, but depression is luckily not one of those things. Anhedonia manifests itself through things like my OCD and the anxiety that comes with it for sure, but it is more than just a symptom or a Thing That Happens.
When I modify the term pleasure with the concept of “receiving” pleasure, I am walking outside of my own mind into the world around me. Setting my person in this world- the same world you and everyone else lives in- I can begin to explain this phenomena, which is often (and will probably conclude in this article still being) somewhat unexplainable. But it exists, and therefore I will attempt to explain what is happening.
I’ll be looking at this mostly from the first person.
The concept of “lacking the ability to feel pleasure” assumes a lot. It assumes that the world outside of my head holds things pleasurable to me, and I am just not feeling them. I find this very off-putting. It is as if I am wrong, and the world around me is fundamentally right. But when you dig deep into the thoughts of those with mental illness (including myself)… the thoughts that are truly rational, and strip away the irrational ones we’re (rightfully) most known for, you will find a sense we all have which I believe should not be brushed away for all of the easy reasons to brush it away,
That sense is that the world is a fundamentally bad place to live. We know this. We know this at the very depths of what we consider the human condition. And because of this knowledge- which I cannot stress enough how rational this knowledge is- we have an awfully difficult time scraping out the little nuggets of pleasure that may be there for us.
Another key word aforementioned is “little.” There is absolutely some pleasure to be had out there, we get that, but that pleasure does not have enough meaning and worth to our lives to expend the energy thinking about it. We tend to strive for the grand. Smelling the flowers doesn’t do shit for us.
Speaking again for myself: when I am in a bout with anhedonia it is because I am consumed with the existential- my whole life. With my OCD, that is a very common place for me to be. My brain sits on top of The Everything, analyzes it, figures out what needs to be done better, and when it comes down to it, sees pleasure (I’ll actually introduce the word “happiness” here as well) as something that must be life-altering and something that will move me forward into the next phase of life. THAT is happiness, and I often see nowhere to receive such. Therefore, I do not feel happiness, because whatever passes for what can be defined as happiness to others, is not enough. The world presented to me just isn’t cutting it.
I’ve been offered a lot of advice on happiness. “Go for a walk!” “learn breathing exercises!” “try altering your diet!” Sorry, but these things are just too tiny to bring about happiness.
With my OCD comes, obviously, obsession. And obsession is a big thing. Everything is heightened, and with that heightening comes the heightened expectation of what happiness and pleasure are supposed to be.
Ok, all of the above I find perfectly rational. Maybe you see it as dark, it certainly can be, sure. But rational… I will back it as rational in any conversation you want to have with me about it.
So we’ll move on to an irrational way of thinking that also accompanies anhedonia.
With OCD comes a lack of trust in people and situations around me. I have no faith in anyone or anything around me to bring me happiness, thus I realize I need to create it myself. Again, before thinking I’m an ass- remember, I am fully aware this is irrational. As well, this particular subsection of the phenomena of anhedonia is somewhat temporary.
Anyway, this realization of needing to create my own happiness- that is not how most people exist, they are not 100% in charge of their happiness. Things outside of their selves make them happy. With me, it must come from within. It most certainly involves others. Others do make me happy (I am not a sociopath). But for others to bring about happiness, I need to define the reality of happiness and then we both need to mesh within that reality.
Now, back to the rational. Or what I consider rational.
With my OCD I actually care about very little. Before you again go off with the “sociopath/psychopath” stuff, hear out the definition of this condition. I am simple. I am not a simpleton, I just live a simple life. It is my brain that is so mismatched in complexity. So the OCD: I have a laser-focus on very specific things. Those fewer-than-normal things I care A LOT about. Some would say too much, and I would counter with… hey, we’re talking about OCD here and the “O” means “obsession.”
I care about very little. Thus it stands to reason that very little brings me happiness or pleasure. And thus- anhedonia. Not so much “lacking the ability to feel happiness” but more so “lacking happiness.” Two different things entirely.
Lacking happiness, because of how I am set in the world we all live in. And it sucks.