Column: Anhedonia

Editorial: To run the race, take example from Christ
January 30, 2015
Week at a Glance
January 30, 2015

Column: Anhedonia

What would you rather do? A) Spend a day in the most luxurious vacation spot in all of Hawaii, or B) Spend the day at home? I think most of us would take the Hawaii option in a heartbeat.

Why? Because it’s more fun. It’s new. It’s exciting. So you fly to Maui and taxi over to your private suite on Kaanapali Beach. You swim with the sea turtles, eat yummy food and watch the sunset.

And then the thought hits you: This is perfect. Why not one more day? So you stay another day. And another. And another. But after a certain point, even though it’s all great, each day is progressively less fun than the day before.

Eventually (as much as you hate to admit it), you’re kind of tired of the sand, heat and the five pounds you’ve gained from eating out, and all you really want to do is just get on a plane and go…home.

Wait, why did it stop being so exciting? Because the center in your brain that controls pleasure and enjoyment got an overdose. Eventually, everything became ordinary.

There’s actually a scientific, medical term for this. It’s called anhedonia. Dr. Archibald Hart, the dean of physiology at Fuller Theological Seminary, defines anhedonia as “the inability to gain pleasure from the things that are normally or used to be pleasurable.”

I’m afraid that through the excessive repetition of the things that feed us pleasure and fulfillment, our minds are becoming numb. What subtly happens inside our minds keeps us from appreciating and enjoying large portions of our lives.

This issue doesn’t stay in the confines of our minds. It can and will produce problems elsewhere in our lives, which is the second aspect. You see, you went to Hawaii (hypothetically) because staying at home was normal. Your brain adjusted to that low level of stimulation and then numbed itself to that, and now it’s begging for more. Let me make this clear: it’s through the excessive pursuit of the things that so gratify us and feed us pleasure that our minds become numb. And the very thing that we’re trying to feed, fails us.

Granted, sometimes the problems aren’t life-changing. But what happens when they are? What happens when you go to your church, and you just don’t get that spiritual high? When that person doesn’t fulfill you like they used to? When your college experience doesn’t pay off like you thought it would? I’ve felt it in my own life, and I’ve done the research.Psychologists unanimously agree: it all stems from our minds craving more of what we believe is better.

But the reality is, we cannot sustain such a lifestyle without negative effects on our minds. Why? Because the higher we go, the more our brains numb to pleasure, and the lower we feel. It’s sickening.

So when the author of Ecclesiastes says seeking pleasure is like chasing the wind, I don’t think he was being metaphorical. I think he was talking about anhedonia, about killing parts of the physical gray matter that God’s given us to make sense of our lives and live responsibly. But we’re single-handedly sabotaging it.

So, on that bright note, what do we do? Well, let’s look to the future. Because, potentially, it’s a place with abundant wells of healthy pleasure: a steady equilibrium of even-keeled, non-extreme indulgences; a place where you can thrive; the kind of balance that God intends.

Hart said, “The key to maintaining a healthy pleasure system is to make sure you seek the right sort of pleasure.”

He goes on to explain that the easiest way to fight anhedonia is by pursuing what are called “type B” pleasures: the simple, natural, ordinary things such as your favorite passage in Scripture, flipping through old family photo albums, taking a run, jamming with friends in the practice shacks, French-pressed coffee, nine hours of sleep at night or the smell of an old book. All these things force us to down-regulate.

As soon as we relax and start reorienting our minds to see and appreciate the small enjoyments God has placed in our day-to-day lives, we stop reaching and grasping for everything out there that we can’t truly hold on to or achieve, and we start finding true pleasure with what God has given us. And when we do that, we have the potential to gain more true joy and fulfillment than we ever could have climbing that ladder to anhedonia.