Enjoying the Moment 

Unable to anticipate or recall pleasure, people with anhedonia can have fun only in the present tense.

Not having fun? Don't worry, everyone feels a little meh sometimes. But what if you never have fun? Well, you're not alone there, either.

It's called anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. "If you have anhedonia, it doesn't mean you're a curmudgeon or miserable," says Ann Kring, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley who studies the condition. Still, for people who have it, the bright peaks of pleasure we spend much of our lives chasing are flattened out.

Anhedonia can be temporary -- during a period of mourning, for example -- but it's also a central feature of many depression and anxiety disorders, as well as schizophrenia. Kring's work with schizophrenics has yielded a compelling paradox that may apply to others with anhedonia: "When you ask patients, 'Do sunsets or good meals or time with friends bring you pleasure?' they will inevitably say, 'No, not so much,'" she explains. But when the researchers provided something pleasant such as a funny novel or a tasty drink, the subjects reported enjoying them a great deal. So it's not that they can't experience pleasure -- it's that they can't anticipate it, or recall later having enjoyed things they'd actually enjoyed quite a bit.

Their pleasure thus trapped in the present, anhedonics rarely seek enjoyment. After all, anticipation, as any advertiser could tell you, is a key part of fun. Sometimes it even trumps the thing itself. "Looking forward to a meal at Chez Panisse, you think it's going to be a ten, but when you get there it's an eight or nine," Kring says. "It's not that it's not a great meal, it's that we tend to overestimate how much pleasure things will bring us."

The desire to keep the Fun Meter cranked to ten is a particularly American trait, says Dr. Jeanne Tsai, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford who studies cultural influences on emotion. "Fun is really an American ideal," she says. "We always ask ourselves 'Are we having fun yet?' and are always seeking entertainment and having a good time." We're supposed to be enthusiastic about our leisure time and passionate about our work, and studies of child-rearing books show we're expected to make school and chores fun, too. Yet fun is open to cultural interpretation. Tsai has found that Americans equate "happiness" with feelings of elation and euphoria, while respondents from Hong Kong associate it with peacefulness and security.

With Americans, Tsai says, it's not enough to just feel good -- you have to express your elation, too. "If people ask how you're doing, it's not enough to say 'Fine,' you have to be 'Great,' and even if you're not feeling that way you have to engage in the cultural script," Tsai says. "If you don't have the Julia Roberts smile, people think you're depressed."

She's not kidding about the smile: Studies done by her Stanford lab comparing Caucasian and Hmong Americans found that not only did the white people smile more broadly and frequently than the Asians, but that depressed white people smiled as much as perfectly content Hmong subjects. We think of our smiles as clues to our secret inner state, when we're actually on a sort of culturally preprogrammed autopilot.

What if you try to have fun, but don't? Dr. Jacqueline Persons, director of the Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy in Oakland, says that when patients come to her complaining of a loss of pleasure, she introduces them to a therapy often used to treat anxiety disorders. Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that thinking patterns influence mood and behaviors -- Persons says clients with anhedonia often stop pursuing activities in favor of holing up at home. "Like the anxious person who has predictions about catastrophe, the depressed person has predictions like, 'I won't enjoy it,' or 'It won't be worthwhile," Persons says. "The therapy is to help the patient identify those cognitions and to do an experiment and test if it's true." In other words, Persons sends anhedonics to a party. Beforehand, the patients rate how much they think they'll like it, and once there, they rate it again. They often enjoy it far more than they'd expected.

All three experts agree that there's a sort of natural gradient between people who want to grab life by the horns and those who prefer a cozy evening at home, and that too much pressure on people to feel good can make them feel ... well, bad. "There's a particularly high premium on happiness and getting out there and doing things in the Bay Area," Kring says. "When you go back to work on Monday and people are like, 'What did you do over the weekend?' very rarely do you hear people say, 'I sat at home and watched TV.'"

It wouldn't hurt, Tsai says, if our fun-loving culture adjusted its view of happiness to recognize that not every good time has to be on the business end of a bungee cord. "If we broaden our definition to include those times when we're feeling calm and peaceful," says Tsai, "maybe you'll find you're happier than you thought."


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