Anhedonia is the technical term for the inability to experience
joy. When people are in the depths of depression, nothing touches
them, not the most intensely pleasurable activities, not the most
familiar comforts. They are emotionally frozen. In this state, people
either have to get professional help or simply wait for weeks or
months until the depression lifts by itself; nothing is going to
make them feel better.
Less dramatic than anhedonia but a much more pervasive problem
is a condition that doesn't even have a clinical name; it's the
gradual withdrawal into isolation and indifference that can mark
the beginning of depression. Robertson Davies called this condition
acedia; it's akin to the deadly sin of sloth. But it's not merely
laziness, it's a gradual closing down of the world. As depression
makes us lose interest or pleasure in ordinary activities, our range
of activities constricts. We stop taking chances, we avoid stimulation,
we play it safe, and we begin to cut ourselves off from anything
that might shake us up including loved ones. It's the gradual
poison that sinks into marriages and makes people vulnerable to
affairs. It's the hardening of the attitudes on the job that makes
for petty, passive-aggressive bureaucracies. It's the withdrawal
from our own children that leaves them questioning why we bother
I worry that the symptomatic relief of depression provided by medication
or brief therapy only helps a person regain a previous level of
functioning that was depressed to begin with. Acedia, the absence
of feeling, makes for empty lives, and it seems to be on the increase.
Putting anger, guilt, and shame in their place is not enough for
recovery from depression; we also must take responsibility for learning
to feel good. We might prefer to play it safe, to avoid or control
all emotions, but we simply can't; it doesn't work; our selves and
our relationships deteriorate into brittle, bitter, vulnerable shells.
While learning to feel may be temporarily upsetting, in the long
haul it adds richness and meaning to our lives.