What is anhedonia? We explore the science behind feeling flat

By Tanith Carey,
updated on Dec 13, 2023

What is anhedonia? We explore the science behind feeling flat

If you’re feeling stuck in a state of ‘meh’, missing the joy in life, and you don’t know why, anhedonia might just be the answer

When you are asked how you are, and you say “Fine”, do you mean you’re neither happy nor sad – just a bit ‘blah’? You may not have heard of the word yet, but it turns out there’s a scientific name for feeling ‘meh’ all the time: anhedonia.

What is anhedonia?

Derived from the Greek words for ‘without pleasure’, anhedonia is used by clinicians to describe the reduced ability to enjoy your life. It can surface as feelings of numbness, being ‘stuck’, and as if your emotions have flatlined. For instance, you may notice things that used to make you feel good no longer do the trick. The joyful feelings you expect to hit you when you get good news, during celebrations, or go on holiday may simply not come.

You might also find that senses, like taste and smell, are less intense. Anhedonia can also affect your sex life because touch, and even orgasms, don’t feel as good. Another clue may be that you may no longer feel the ‘chills’ from music you love. It may even dial down your vision so the world looks more grey.

Why haven’t I heard of anhedonia before?

Anhedonia was first coined by philosopher Théodule-Armand Ribot in his book The Psychology of Sentiments in 1896. It’s long been recognised as a symptom of major depression, but, more recently, a growing amount of research has found that it can exist as a standalone condition in a range of forms. So, you can be functioning and ‘getting on’ with life, but without the ability to really enjoy it.

What happens to your brain in anhedonia?

In anhedonia, the brain’s reward circuit, the mesolimbic reward pathway, stops working as well. To feel pleasure, dopamine needs to circulate smoothly around this circuit, which connects the regions such as the prefrontal cortex (which regulates behaviour), the amygdala (which processes incoming signals), and the nucleus accumbens (the ‘pleasure centre’).

Studies investigating this have found there can be a breakdown in communication between the different hubs along the way, as seen in research by Felger et al. in Molecular Psychiatry. For instance, illnesses that trigger a strong immune response – like Covid, lupus, and diabetes – can prompt inflammation in regions of the brain’s reward circuit, making it more difficult to feel pleasure. Good feelings triggered by dopamine can also be dampened by cortisol if you are under constant stress.

What else can contribute to anhedonia?

Lack of sleep has been found to interrupt the release of dopamine into the reward system, along with life history. People who have had chaotic, unpredictable, or traumatic childhoods may learn not to trust good feelings, even when they are safe in adulthood. Plus, there’s diet. Modern diets are high in sugar and preservatives, which can cause inflammation in the gut, and kill off the microbiota that help make feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin.

Hormonal changes can also contribute. As oestrogen declines over the month, and over the years moving towards menopause, it can have a knock-on effect on the production of feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, making women feel more flat. A drop in testosterone as men age can have a similar effect.

How do you know if you have anhedonia?

Consider your answers to the following statements. If there are more yeses than nos, think about what might be causing your ‘blah’, and how to get your brain’s reward circuit back ‘online’.

  • When asked how I am, I often struggle to articulate it.

  • I can’t easily remember a time recently when I really enjoyed myself.

  • I don’t enjoy my favourite food or music as much as I used to.

  • When other people rave about things, I often find it hard to join in or see what they are appreciating.

  • I feel I have to fake having fun.

  • I feel I’m holding myself back or distancing myself during emotional moments.

  • I feel irritated by other people around me being too lively and having fun.

  • I struggle to remember the last time I really laughed.

  • I often plan my escape and think about the life I really want to live.

How common is anhedonia?

In surveys of people in a similar state of ‘languishing’, an Ipsos mental health report found that 21% were in this state, with millennials, age 26+, most likely to be languishing (30%). Next were Gen Z (26%), Gen X (21%) and, lastly, baby boomers (14%).

And standalone anhedonia is becoming more prevalent too. Our brains were designed to get measured releases of dopamine to motivate us to meet our basic needs. Since convenience became the currency of modern culture, every product and service we use is designed to keep dopamine coming in deluges.

But when everything is provided for you, it’s not surprising that this very primal pleasure system gets overloaded – and metaphorically ‘short-circuits’. Over time, your reward system becomes less sensitive, and more blunted. Gradually, your brain’s neurons can lose their dopamine receptors, so it no longer circulates as easily. The result is that it can get harder to hit the highs, and feel excitement or real pleasure. When everything is designed to be pleasurable, nothing is.

How can you address anhedonia?

There are lots of lifestyle tweaks you can make to improve the working of your brain’s rewards system. These range from always having something in the diary to look forward to (to build up dopamine in more measured doses), to spending more time away from your phone – which constantly spikes it – to eating an anti-inflammatory diet to encourage the growth of microbiota that help produce serotonin.

Another research-based approach is ‘behavioural activation’. The principle is that doing something you once enjoyed, no matter how small, is always better than doing nothing, even if you don’t feel the good effects right away. So, if you used to enjoy painting before you fell into blah, make a date with yourself to paint a little regularly, say twice a week, until the good feelings start to flow again.

It may take time to get your reward circuits running at full capacity again – or to get your feel-good chemicals back in balance. But, by starting to make lifestyle tweaks, changing your priorities, and deliberately feeding your brain more positive inputs, the small changes will gradually add up.

By Tanith Carey

Tanith Carey’s book, ‘Feeling ‘Blah’? Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life’s Highs’, is out now (Welbeck Balance, £16.99 hardback).

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