There’s an actual word for when you’re feeling a bit ‘meh’ – it’s Anhedonia. Expert reveals the biological and environmental reasons behind it and what can help
When you’re asked how you are, and you say ‘fine’ do you mean you’re not happy, not sad or just a bit ‘blah’ maybe?
Even though you have everything you should want, a comfortable home and friends and family around you, do you sometimes feel you’d like to enjoy life a little more than you do?
modern life doesn’t actually make being happy easy
You may not have heard of the word, but it turns out there’s a scientific name for feeling ‘meh’ most of the time – it’s known as anhedonia.
And it turns out there’s a range of biological and environmental reasons behind anhedonia, ranging from hormone shifts and over-processed diets to immune illnesses, the stress of modern life, and childhood trauma.
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The first book on the subject Feeling Blah? Why Anhedonia has left you joyless and how to recapture life’s highs, looks at the reasons you might be experiencing Anhedonia – and what to do to beat it.
‘Despite the fact we get our needs met more easily than at any time in history, studies show that modern life doesn’t actually make being happy easy, due to factors like stress, overwhelm and comparison culture,’ says Tanith Carey, Journalist and Author.
‘However, the good news is that we know more about how happiness is made in the brain than ever before, thanks to the use of FMRI (known as functional technology) which can see what happens when emotions are triggered.
‘That’s why it’s time to finally start to harness this knowledge and push back.’
Here’s a run-down about everything you need to know about anhedonia, the missing word in mental health…
What does Anhedonia feel like?
Anhedonia is from the Greek word for ‘without pleasure’.
It can show up as feeling stuck, blah, numb, or as if your emotions have flatlined. So, as well as finding it hard to feel joy, you may not feel feelings of sadness as intensely either.
One of the things that may raise alarm bells is that you may notice that the things that used to make you feel good – socialising, your favourite music, or holidays – don’t do the trick anymore.
You may also find that the pleasure you get from your senses, like touch and taste, are less intense. That means it can also affect your sex life because touch, and even orgasms, don’t feel as good.
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Anhedonia vs depression
Anhedonia is often a symptom of major depression, but it can also be a standalone condition. If you have standalone anhedonia, you may not be happy, but you may not be miserable either. However, you may have lost delight in the little things.
Anhedonia can make you feel like the balance in your brain has tipped
There’s a good chance that often don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, but you still do anyway. You will get on with your day, but you will feel like you have to fake being happy.
Anhedonia can make you feel like the balance in your brain has tipped, and apathy is swamping your enjoyment of the things you used to love.
So, what’s happening inside your brain?
To feel pleasure in life, dopamine has to circulate smoothly in your brain’s mesolimbic reward pathway. One reason for anhedonia is that this pleasure circuit isn’t running as well as it could or should.
Research is finding that there can be a breakdown in communication between the different hubs on the reward pathway, or too little or too much dopamine circulating around it.
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Lifestyle and anhedonia
Cortisol is a stress hormone that we need to get us going and motivate us, but when levels of stress are constantly high in our bodies, this level never gets a chance to reset. Over time this dampens the effects of our feel-good chemicals like dopamine.
This is because originally, it was far more important for our survival to take notice of threats than it was to feel pleasure. So, cortisol lasts much longer in our bodies once it has been triggered.
A lack of sleep has also been found to interrupt the release of dopamine into the reward system.
this dampens the effects of our feel-good chemicals like dopamine
Another reason is illness. Any infection or immune disorder that causes an immune response in the body, from Covid to Diabetes, Lupus and Lyme disease, these can cause inflammation, not only in the body but in the brain, affecting the reward pathway.
There is also life history to take into account – people who have had chaotic, unpredictable, or traumatic childhoods, may learn not to trust good feelings even when they are safe in adulthood.
And of course then there is diet. Modern diets that are high in sugar and preservatives can cause inflammation in the gut and kill off the micro bacteria which helps make feel-good chemicals like serotonin.
How do you beat feeling ‘blah’?
One of the keys to beating feelings of ‘blah’ is understanding how joy is made in the brain in the first place.
Even though being happy is the number one goal for most people, it’s surprising how little we tend to know about how this happens.
I spoke to some of the world’s top neuroscientists to track this process, and to understand what happens to regions along the mesolimbic reward pathway when we feel ‘enjoyment’.
Of course, the brain is a hugely complicated organ, but with some basic knowledge, we can start to think about how to feed our brain better inputs that help keep this reward pathway running better.
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There’s a huge toolkit of evidence-based ways in the book, but one of my favourites – and one I always use myself – is to make a rule of always having something in your diary to look forward to.
This is because neuroscientists have found that an important part of joy is anticipation.
Having something to look forward to, stimulates the build-up of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine around the brain’s reward pathway.
So, every week I make it a rule to have at least one activity in my diary that I’m looking forward to, whether that’s coffee with a friend, or a walk somewhere beautiful, listening to my favourite podcast.
To boost the benefits, you should shake it up too. The brain releases more dopamine when it is seeking out or experiencing something new. So regularly set out to visit a place you haven’t been before or explore activities you’ve always wanted to try.
For more tips on Anhedonia and happiness hacks, read Feeling Blah? Why Anhedonia has left you joyless and how to recapture life’s highs – published by Welbeck on April 13.
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