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4 Ways to Bring Pleasure Back Into Your Life

2. Reward anticipation.

Key points

  • You may be feeling a severe case of the "blahs" these days. If so, perhaps you're suffering from a form of dysphoria called "anhedonia".
  • New research on anhedonia shows just how central this state of dysphoria can be to the symptoms of depression.
  • Using four tricks developed in this research, you can turn the ability to derive rewards from everyday life into a renewed sense of joy.

Daily life can be full of both pleasure and pain, but the trick to finding fulfillment is to allow the pleasure to outweigh the pain. Consider how you feel when you get up in the morning. What’s the first thought that pops into your head? Is it that you’re looking forward to what the day will bring or that you don’t even really care? It’s going to be the same old same old.

According to a new study by Gabriela Khazanov of the Philadelphia Veterans Administration Medical Center and colleagues (2022), your feelings of “blah” may be a sign that you’re experiencing anhedonia, or “diminished interest or pleasure in usual activities” (p.256). It’s not that you’re miserable; it’s just that you’re not particularly happy, either.

Maybe you haven’t always felt this way. Perhaps there was a time when you couldn’t wait to get your day started, not necessarily because you were doing anything very exciting, but because you got simple delight from simple things. Even something as mundane as watering your plants seemed to make you feel a tiny surge of enjoyment as you notice a new bud that’s coming into bloom.

The Role of Anhedonia in Depression

Failing to experience pleasure once in a while may represent a little blip in your mental health, but when this becomes chronic, you may be at risk for the development of depression. As Khazanov et al. note, anhedonia is one of two core symptoms of depression and is experienced by potentially 70 percent of those with this diagnosable disorder. You undoubtedly associate depression with a chronically dejected mood, but you may not have considered this other, stealth-like quality that can sit there beneath the surface as a constant feature of this condition.

As anhedonia continues to fester, depressed individuals may not even be aware of this impediment to their ability to improve their sad mood. Indeed, with anhedonia present on a chronic basis, these individuals may even become less able to benefit from psychological interventions targeting their symptoms. Unless treatment begins to address anhedonia, the VA-based research team suggests, there will always be limits on how effectively it can alleviate depression.

Anhedonia, as the VA-based researchers point out, can be more than a symptom of depression. It can also be a personality trait, a component of an individual’s chronic way of being. However, there is a fixable component to anhedonia through the route of “access to rewarding experiences” and the types of rewards people can engineer to occur in their lives. To do so requires overcoming the possibility that the person with anhedonia looks at such potentially rewarding experiences with a hefty degree of skepticism, due to a “fear of negative outcomes” (p. 257).

Treating the Anhedonia Factor

If you can relate to the idea of anhedonia, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you would fit the diagnostic criteria for depression. Khazanov and her colleagues focus their paper on clinical depression, but as you read about the treatments they propose, you can still pull out helpful suggestions for getting more zest out of your everyday life, especially when it comes to finding that route to more rewarding experiences.

Returning to the idea that even if anhedonia is inherent in an individual’s personality, it can still be treated, the VA-led team provides very practical suggestions for enhancing your ability to derive pleasure in life by changing your behavior with respect to rewards. All you have to do is adapt these four behavior-oriented elements of their proposed therapeutic approach:

  1. Reward valuation: To get to a positive outcome, no matter what that outcome is, requires at least some effort. People high in anhedonia are shown in laboratory tasks to exert less effort to get a reward, such as winning a small amount of money. In everyday situations, effort is also required to achieve certain rewards. You’d like to go to a concert because your favorite band will be playing. Then you start to imagine all the logistics of getting there, from transportation to the need, possibly, for childcare. It all just seems too much. In therapy, as Khazanov et al. note, people high in anhedonia can accumulate a massive set of reasons not to seek treatment. Whatever the positive outcome that awaits you, overcoming these barriers requires that you break those obstacles down into manageable units, tackling them one by one until the way to a reward becomes smooth and easy.
  2. Reward anticipation: People high in anhedonia look at a potentially rewarding situation as one that they couldn’t benefit from. Perhaps you’re invited to a social gathering that would most likely be fun. However, as you start to think about preparing for it, such as finding the right clothes or figuring out whether you’ll get there and feel awkward, you reach the decision that you might as well not go at all. The key to overcoming this component of anhedonia is to reduce your perceived barriers to achieving a positive outcome. Get your clothes ready ahead of time so that you don’t panic at the last minute. Then imagine yourself looking good in that outfit. Next, think about who else will be there. Will there be at least some people you know and like? Project yourself into the situation and remind yourself of how good you feel when you’re around them. Even if you only know a few people on the guest list, this can give you a baseline on which you can build.
  3. Reward learning: When something good happens to you, how do you translate that success into your plans for future efforts? If you fail to stop and reflect on the positive feelings associated with your accomplishment, it won’t matter how great the outcome was. People high in anhedonia, Khazanov and her coauthors maintain, need help in savoring the moment when the moment is good. Take that experience apart and ask yourself, honestly, how enjoyable it was. After that social gathering, reflect back on the times when someone complimented you, made you laugh, or helped you feel supported. In the case of that concert, go back over the steps that you needed to go through in order to get there. Were they actually as bad as you imagined them to be? Even if you did run into a hiccup along the way, take pleasure in the fact that you overcame it. Maybe the next time won’t be so bad after all.
  4. Reward delay: Some rewards come immediately but many others require some time to transpire. In this case, patience can be a virtue as you learn to draw the throughline from experience to heightened feelings of pleasure. As you learn to overcome your hesitancy toward exposing yourself to new and potentially positive experiences, some rewards will become evident immediately. Others, such as making a new friend at that social gathering, might involve being willing to allow that relationship to evolve over time.

Making Reward Value Work for You

Again, the methods that Khazanov and her fellow authors outline apply to therapeutic interventions for people whose anhedonia is a part of a larger symptom picture. However, when the blahs strike, it can be for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’ve just forgotten how to squeeze little pleasures out of ordinary life experiences.

Practice using these four reward-oriented exercises the next time you’ve got what seems like a boring day ahead of you. Is there anything that will be happening that you look forward to, just a little? Is it preparing your evening meal, chopping up little bits of onion or garlic? If you happen to have children in your life, how about sitting down with them and playing a game you know they enjoy? Turn your mind off from your concerns at the moment and try to see the world from their eyes as they try their best to win. Such simple experiences, when seen for what they are, can provide an important antidote to the feeling that nothing matters or can give you pleasure.

To sum up, savoring the good can help you build back your feelings of enjoyment that, over time, can allow you to translate those boosts to your mood into daily sources of inspiration. Restoring your ability to derive pleasure from the past will help you build those feelings of fulfillment that you can then project into the future.

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References

Khazanov, G. K., Forbes, C. N., Dunn, B. D., & Thase, M. E. (2022). Addressing anhedonia to increase depression treatment engagement. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(2), 255–280. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12335

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