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Anhedonia, Anhedonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?

timv's picture

(For those who don't relate to the world entirely in terms of song lyrics, the title of this post alludes to "Caldonia," originally recorded by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five but redone by many others since.)

Anhedonia is defined as "the absence of pleasure or the ability to experience it." I encountered the word a month or so ago, hearing someone on the radio talking about addiction and recovery.

The speaker was saying that things often go well for the first week or so when the patient is getting a lot of personal attention and encouragement and is excited about the prospect of a new, healthier lifestyle; but that progress can go off the rails a bit later as a result of anhedonia, when the rush of the initial stage is over and he or she tries to get on with a normal life without whatever chemicals or behavior led to the need for treatment.

That got me thinking about the trajectory of the diet and exercise programs that we undertake, wondering if--perhaps in a somewhat lesser way--there's a similar kind of a mechanism at work. It's exciting to take on a new way of living and acting, to read the books and the magazine articles and to go out and buy the goods associated with it. But all that wears off before too long. All we're left with is actually doing it every day for a long time, and that can stop being fun pretty quickly sometimes.

I've been fortunate lately in that I've really been enjoying skating. I've been making a point of being ready to go out any time the forecasters predict a temperature of 60 degrees or better, and skating on those fairly rare days has been fun. I've also discovered that, even on days when the weather is pretty bad, I can set up a bike in my stationary trainer out in the backyard, put on headphones with a long cable running to my computer's sound output with two or three hundred songs on shuffle, and happily crank away for an hour or so while watching birds and squirrels. Stationary biking bores me to tears indoors but being outside seems to help a lot. And it's no problem keeping warm even on really cold days since I'm not moving, plus no worries about hills or stoplights or cars.

Anhedonia also appears as one of the symptoms of depression, which has made the news due to a couple of published reports so far this year. At the end of last month, there were lots of news stories covering a study showing that the mid-40s really are an unhappy time for most people.

Study finds middle age is truly depressing

LONDON (Reuters) - Middle age is truly miserable, according to a study using data from 80 countries showing that depression is most common among men and women in their forties.

The British and U.S. researchers found that happiness for people ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe follows a U-shaped curve where life begins cheerful before turning tough during middle age and then returning to the joys of youth in the golden years.

Previous studies have shown that psychological well-being remained flat throughout life but the new findings to be published in the journal Social Science & Medicine suggest we are in for a topsy-turvy emotional ride.

"In a remarkably regular way throughout the world people slide down a U-shaped level of happiness and mental health throughout their lives," Andrew Oswald at Warwick University, who co-led the study, said on Tuesday.

and also

Midlife slump finds people in their 40s down in the dumps

Middle age makes you miserable, so don't blame your job, your kids, your spouse, your income or lack of it, suggests an international study of 2 million people from 80 nations released today.

Researchers from Great Britain and the USA analyzed data spanning more than 35 years on measures such as depression, anxiety, mental well-being, happiness and life satisfaction. ...] For both sexes, the probability of depression peaks around age 44.

Oswald doesn't have any concrete answers on why such a slump occurs.

"My best conjecture is that people eventually learn to quell their infeasible aspirations," he says. "They manage to get their expectations into line with what they can actually achieve." [...] "You can be almost certain you will follow this U-shaped curve," Oswald says. "If you are finding life tough in your 40s, maybe it's useful to know this is completely normal."

I don't know about that "infeasible aspirations" business, but I suppose that this could be encouraging news for those of us on the uphill side of 45. For those who are still on downhill side of the U, I suggest that you stock up on comfort food, get lots of sunlight, and take good care of your pets or consider adopting some!

Another story that got a lot of press was "Blue Monday," which seems to have been reported each January for the past few years, although I hadn't been aware of it until this year.

Today, say experts, is the unhappiest day in the entire year.

Unpaid Christmas bills, nasty weather, and failed New Year's resolutions combine to make January 22 the gloomiest in the calendar.

But if anyone can cope with 'Blue Monday' it is the British, who researchers have found to be mainly optimists.

More than 85 per cent of us expect the future to be happier than it is now, according to researchers.

Dr Cliff Arnall, a Cardiff University psychologist, devised the formula that shows today is the most depressing.

His equation takes into account six factors: weather, debt, time since Christmas, time since failing our new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take action.

That all makes good enough sense, but the story/occasion seems to be pretty much the creation of a British travel agency that promotes it to the press to try to sell tickets for mid-winter holiday excursions:

This date was published in a press release under the name of Cliff Arnall, at the time a tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, a Further Education centre attached to Cardiff University. Guardian columnist Dr Ben Goldacre reported that the press release was delivered substantially pre-written to a number of academics by Public Relations agency Porter Novelli, who offered them money to put their names to it. The Guardian later printed a statement from Cardiff University distancing themselves from Arnall: "Cardiff University has asked us to point out that Cliff Arnall... was a former part-time tutor at the university but left in February."

All the more reason to be suspicious of scientific claims in TV and newspaper stories, I suppose. "Half of what you read and less of what you hear," as the saying goes.

Notably, "Anhedonia" was also the original title chosen by Woody Allen for the film that became Annie Hall:

But hardly anyone knew what the word meant, so it was jettisoned.

"Anhedonia is a psychological state where nothing gives a person pleasure," he explained. "The word hedonism is in it. We diagnosed that as Alvy's problem; nothing gives him any pleasure."

Asked if that were his problem as well as his hero's, he said, "I think everyone suffers from it, just as everyone is a little paranoid. I don't develop big enthusiasms. I find filmmaking laborious and tedious. I try to mitigate it by working with Diane, who I like a lot."

These days, I suspect, Woody Allen is better known for the foibles of his personal life than for his filmmaking. But that film is one of the rare comedies to win an Oscar for Best Picture, and the series of films that began with Annie Hall really are remarkable.

OK, long rambling blog entry and I don't have any neat way to wrap it up, and I want to go watch the Tour of California prologue, so I guess it just ends here.


eebee's picture

Know any Depressed Athletes?

What a great article. I've been obsessing over peace, happiness and depression because of it for a few days now. Life, don't talk to me about life.

There are so many components of and influences on depression, like the Blue Monday founder illustrates with Christmas bills, Seasonal Affective Disorder, etc., or sleep-deprivation, drugs, hormones, trauma, the economy... there's no doubt that depression is like driving through this Bittersweet Symphony with the hand-brake on. Music and lyrics at least provide a safe and finite way for us to express what we're so often trying to ignore.

"...It's exciting to take on a new way of living and acting, to read the books and the magazine articles and to go out and buy the goods associated with it. But all that wears off before too long." Indeed. How do we ever run far enough ahead of ourselves to like ourselves again? The only way I know to bring my messy adult psyche back into line with the clean peace I knew as a child is to skate at least one hour a day. This gives me about a three-day head start on the Langoliers, who will catch up with and start chasing me again by then end of day two (of no exercise). If I wake up in the morning with self-hatred, I have finally learned these days to take that as a cue to make my next skating-dose a priority. Logical thought alone cannot shout down years of negative reinforcement. It takes natural physiological amelioration. Hah! "I gotta go take my NPA"!

But isn't exercise also one of those exciting new things we lose momentum on, like a gym membership? Not when you love playing that sport with every cell in your body. Of course some people need medication to keep their particular plates spinning each day, but if the meds don't stop the plates from falling off the sticks and shattering, I recommend a person throw himself/herself headlong into a new sport he/she has always wanted to try. The great thing about outdoor inline skating is that I can skate for as many hours as it takes for me to get happy - which is about one hour in my opinion, and about 4 hours according to Blake :-)

If anybody reading this is intrigued by this notion or has an inkling it might be true, there is a sport out there that can give you Reasons to be Cheerful if counting your blessings has become about as useless as counting sheep.

Talking of blessings...The Diving Bell and the Butterfly movie shamed me into unprecedented thankfulness the other day, but I knew it wouldn't last :-)

Good idea, Timv, of taking the stat bike outdoors...don't run over any squirrels!

More random thoughts on depression and middle-age: I find Spongebob Squarepants fascinating. Spongebob plays the innocent, incorrigibly happy child to Squidward's burdened and depressed adult character. It's like seeing my childhood and adulthood played out side-by-side. It's wasted on Nickelodeon.

As for the irrational exuberance and ensuing failure over new exercise programs and diets, Establishing New Habits could be the next big thing, as long as we don't think of it as such!

roadskater's picture

Oh Boy What a Blend

I can't go on about this now, but thanks for the notes, you two. Music, movies, especially Woody Allen ones (you know at one point I was certain I was going to do a book on those movies and had I had access to scripts, film, and more, maybe.... But at the time he kept making them so fast it was hard to keep up! You go, Woody.) I guess eebee was combining for extra points with a Del Amitri/The Verve double allusion (Bittersweet Symphony, Driving with the Brakes on)? And there's my favorite term for the start of a race, irrational exuberance, and I still hear the voice of Alan Greenspan testifying before Congress when I'm at the start line of so many events!
eebee's picture

Maxwell Maltz?

"I guess eebee was combining for extra points with a Del Amitri/The Verve double allusion (Bittersweet Symphony, Driving with the Brakes on)?"

Not Del Amitri. 'Depression is like driving through life with the handbrake on' is a quote I've seen attributed to different people, one of them being Maxwell Maltz, a self-esteem/optimism cheerleader. But you can give me extra points if you want. Unfortunately I don't know that many Del Amitri songs, The Last to Know is the only one coming to mind. Bittersweet Symphony, however, contains all the futility and hopelessness of life without skating! Try to make ends meet, you're a slave to the money then you get clobbered with a lawsuit...

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