Anhedonia: Understanding the Loss of Joy and Pleasure
Anhedonia is a complex psychological condition that affects the ability to experience joy, pleasure, and interest in once-enjoyable activities. Derived from the Greek words “an” meaning without, and “hedone” meaning pleasure, anhedonia can have a significant impact on an individual’s overall well-being and quality of life. In psychology, we describe anhedonia as a dysfunction in the brain’s processing of rewards. It is a foundational symptom common to depression.
When the dark clouds of hopelessness choke the joy out of life, soon we resign to a new state of being. Somewhere in the mix with all the other nasties of depression, we lose the ability to experience pleasure. Markedly, the inability to experience pleasure deeply impacts wellbeing at a much deeper level than simply no longer feeling joy. The pursuit of happiness is more than unalienable right; it is the foundational process of motivation.
In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and potential treatments for anhedonia.
The Hedonic Principle
The hedonic principle suggests that “when environments thwart immediate needs that promote pleasure or prevent pain our bodies physically react, motivating action to regain a homeostatic balance. Accordingly, we move to obtain the object that we perceive will bring us pleasure or defend against any threats we perceive will result in pain” (Murphy, 2023).
Theories on the role of pleasure has played a primary role in human philosophy for thousands of years. Typically, citing pleasure as a primary goal of human activity. In more recent psychology, Sigmund Freud referred to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the primary motivator of human behavior. Murphy explains that the underlying theory in Freud’s pleasure principle is that, “the instinctual urges create a tension (or instability), motivating action to immediately satisfy the urge to regain stability” (Murphy, 2022).
Anhedonia refers to the psychological state of no longer finding pleasure in activities that one once enjoyed. It is metronomically connected to the pleasure processing system in the brain and a common symptom in depression and schizophrenia.
The great alarm here is that if the pursuit of pleasure is a primary motivator for action than loss of the ability to feel pleasure stymies attempts to heal in a vicious cycle of depression. According to the behavioral activation theory, healthy action is the key ingredient to healing. However, when anhedonia is involved, there is no motivation to act.
Causes of Anhedonia
Anhedonia can arise from various causes, including mental health disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also be a symptom of certain physical illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, and substance abuse. Additionally, high levels of stress, traumatic events, or a history of childhood abuse can contribute to the development of anhedonia.
Cognitive theories of mental illness suggest that thought patterns may contribute to anhedonia which in turn may cause a mental disorder such as depression. Organic conditions, however, supersede cognitions, impacting the way we think.
Neuroscience and Anhedonia
Robert Sapolski explains that “the neurotransmitter dopamine is central to understanding” the role of pleasure, pain, and motivation. Dopamine is intimately related to pleasure. The release of dopamine into the blood stream creates sensations of pleasure. Disruption to this process creates adverse feeling effects.
Sapolski wrote that “the dopaminergic system is about reward.” He continues, “various pleasurable stimuli activate tegmental neurons, triggering their release of dopamine. ” Consequently, disruption to the normal function of the dopaminergic system impacts the normal processing of rewards (pleasure). Sapolski cites the following supporting evidence:
- drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol release dopamine in the accumbens;
- if tegmental release of dopamine is blocked, previously rewarding stimuli become aversive;
- chronic stress or pain depletes dopamine and decreases the sensitivity of dopamine neurons to stimulation, producing the defining symptom of depression—“anhedonia,” the inability to feel pleasure (Sapolski, 2018).
Other studies suggest that “the mesolimbic dopamine (DA) system may be selectively involved in reward motivation but not hedonic response” (Treadway & Zald, 2013). Basically, what Michael treadway and David Zald found is that disruption in the DA system impacted affective forecasting. These disruptions led to inaccurate predictions of pleasure, or an inability to predict pleasure from future events. However, although a person may mispredict hedonic affects, they still were capable of experiencing pleasure.
For example, a person may dread going to a social engagement, but once there find the social experience enjoyable. Consequently, the malfunctioning of reward processing inhibits behaviors that would ultimately be pleasurable.
Some animal studies discovered that the DA system was involved in effort based decisions. For example, when deciding what to eat for dinner, a person with a malfunction DA system may forego preparing a delicious meal, opting for a boring bowl of cereal. They still are driven to fulfill their basic need to eat just not motivated to work for a more pleasurable food experience.
This has greater implications than our culinary choices since most worthwhile pleasures in life require substantial work and patience.
Symptoms of Anhedonia
One of the key symptoms of anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure or interest in activities that were previously enjoyable. Individuals may find it challenging to engage in hobbies, socialize, or even feel a sense of satisfaction from accomplishments. Other common signs include a loss of motivation, reduced energy levels, feelings of emptiness or apathy, and difficulties in forming emotional connections with others.
State and Trait Anhedonia
The psychological state of anhedonia typically is seen as a stable trait. However, research has identified anhedonia may be either a stable trait or a temporary feeling state. An unexpected loss of a romantic partner left me in a state of anhedonia for months. In contrast, anhedonia associated with schizophrenia remains stable throughout an individuals life.
The significance of this differences is that a person experiencing transient disruption in anhedonia, often triggered by adverse environmental events, are more likely than those with trait anhedonia to invoke psychological pain avoidance strategies, this includes suicidal ideations (Darquennes, et al., 2023).
The Impact on Mental Health and Relationships
Anhedonia can significantly impact mental health and interpersonal relationships. The inability to experience pleasure often leads to feelings of frustration, sadness, and a sense of detachment from oneself and others. It can exacerbate symptoms of mood disorders, contribute to social isolation, and hinder the ability to maintain fulfilling relationships. Identifying and addressing anhedonia is crucial to promote mental and emotional well-being.
The treatment of anhedonia depends on its underlying cause. For individuals with mental health disorders, therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can be helpful in addressing negative thoughts and challenging behaviors that contribute to anhedonia. Additionally, your physician may prescribe medications, such as antidepressants or antipsychotics in certain cases.
Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, mindfulness, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, can also play a significant role in managing anhedonia. Seeking support from loved ones, joining support groups, and participating in activities that promote positive emotions and engagement can aid in the recovery process.
Anhedonia is a complex condition that affects an individual’s ability to experience joy, pleasure, and interest in once-favorite activities. It can stem from various causes, including mental health disorders, physical illnesses, and traumatic events. Recognizing the symptoms of anhedonia and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial for improving overall well-being and recovering a sense of pleasure and fulfillment.
If you or someone you know is experiencing anhedonia or any other mental health concern, it is essential to reach out to a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and support. Remember, you are not alone, and with the right help, there is hope for reclaiming a fulfilling and joyful life.
Darquennes, G., Wacquier, B., Loas, G., & Hein, M. (2023). Suicidal Ideations in Major Depressed Subjects: Role of the Temporal Dynamics of Anhedonia. Brain Sciences, 13(7). DOI: 10.3390/brainsci13071065
Murphy, T. Franklin (2023). Hedonic Principle. Psychology Fanatic. Published 4-18-2023. Accessed 11-14-2023.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Pleasure Principle. Psychology Fanatic. Published 9-2-2022. Accessed 11-14-2023
Sapolski, Robert (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.