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THRILLED TO DEATH[how the endless pursuit of pleasure is leaving us numb]
By Archibald D. Hart
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Archibald D. Hart
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHERE HAS ALL OUR PLEASURE GONE?
I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure. -John D. Rockefeller
From the information I gleaned in my first interview with him, Brian seemed like someone to be envied. He had it all! He grew up in the best of neighborhoods with caring parents who provided him with the best education. Then followed a great marriage and two adorable children. To be honest, I was tempted to envy Brian that Thursday morning during our first session. It was hard to believe that he needed help. He certainly didn't show any outward signs of distress.
But as the session proceeded and we pulled back the veil of privacy, it all came flooding out. For many of the reasons that I will be describing in this book, Brian was extremely unhappy. He had what most of us would consider a very successful life. At age thirty-four he had been promoted to division sales manager, complete with a company car and sizeable benefits package. He was active in his church and community, and his family was looking forward to their annual vacation in a few weeks. "So why do I feel so empty?" he asked me. "I have everything I could have ever hoped for, but I just can't seem to enjoy any of it. No matter what I achieve or acquire, it's like I'm totally numb inside. What's wrong with me?"
A certain numbness had become his regular feeling. He had been a vibrant, outgoing, and energetic person, but now all he felt was persistent apathy. It was now hard for him to be enthusiastic about anything. He had lost interest in activities that used to excite him, and now only wow experiences grabbed him. And on top of all of this, he had lost his ability to extract even the slightest pleasure out of the ordinary things of life.
It's called anhedonia-a feeling of joylessness and cheerlessness. Everyone feels it to some extent these days, and it's not going to go away. In our fast-paced, pleasure-seeking society, we are obsessed with increasing our level of excitement to feel a sense of pleasure. When we go to the movies, we expect the action sequences to be more thrilling and spectacular than before. Our music must be louder and edgier than the last album. Even in our churches, preachers must out-wow their last sermon or we might not go back again. We have become addictively dependent on persistent thrills and kicks.
What's bad about this? The problem is that we are being thrilled to death! Our continuous pursuit of high stimulation is snuffing out our ability to experience genuine pleasure in simple things.
Scientists who are exploring anhedonia believe not only that we are slowly losing our capacity for pleasure, but that this condition might be a major factor in many emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety, as well as contributing to addictions to sex, work, drugs, and other addicting behaviors. More alarming to me is that anhedonia is impacting our children and teenagers to a greater extent than parents, and if we don't take action to correct it, I pity where the next generation is headed. Deriving pleasure from the ordinary and healthy experiences of life will be a thing of the past. We will come to rely entirely on psychotropic medications for our happiness-and this happiness will only be artificial at best.
WHAT IS ANHEDONIA?
Anhedonia refers to the reduced ability to experience pleasure. And it is a phenomenon that is growing in leaps and bounds. Scientists are adamant that as we push the stress level and exciting stimulation higher and higher, we are literally overloading the pathways to the pleasure center of the brain. This overload causes our brain's pleasure center to demand a further increase in the level of stimulation before delivering more feelings of pleasure. This results in a decline in our pleasure system's ability to deliver enjoyment out of ordinary, simple things. I see this process at work in my patients, friends and family, and even in myself.
I must confess that I know about a diminished pleasure response all too well. Of course, I had seen patients who were anhedonic, but mostly we believed that only people with severe depression or a mental disorder could be so profoundly lacking in pleasure. But my experience of anhedonia felt different.
My life had always been full of pleasurable experiences. I have never lacked any ability to turn on my pleasure circuits. My hobbies, for instance, are a great source of enjoyment-even today. I can't begin to describe the hours of delight I have enjoyed in, for instance, crafting gold rings for my wife and my daughters. I make a habit of collecting old gold when I travel back to my country of birth, South Africa, one of the world's great gold producers. In fact, I grew up in a gold mining town so cannot but be obsessed with its beauty.
I can also derive immense satisfaction from completing a computer program I need for my research, or building a physiological instrument I need for my laboratory, or reroofing a part of my house, or repairing my car. I can plot and scheme and create so much pleasurable experiences that I sometimes worry about not living long enough to accomplish all the things I want to accomplish. And I am talking about things I want to do, not work I have to do There's a big difference. But every now and again without expecting it, I feel that I couldn't be bothered. Pleasure is gone. Nothing can make me feel pleasure. It's as if something in my brain switches off, and life feels boring, blah, blunted, and bland. (That little alliteration did give me a pleasure boost.)
And many of you reading this book feel the same. Up and down on the pleasure scale-like a yo-yo. Many today are beginning to suffer from an emotional disorder called hedonic dysregulation. In simple terms, it means that your brain's pleasure center is not working properly. When it should be giving you pleasure, it doesn't.
But if only our disregulated pleasure centers would confine themselves to the realm of pleasure, I would not bother to write this book. Anhedonia, in and of itself, is no big deal when you put it in life's larger perspective. But other consequences of anhedonia are much more serious and pervasive than this. The lack of ability to experience pleasure affects every aspect of our lives, from sexuality to addictions, from relationships to spirituality. Even our capacity to experience God to the fullest is seriously compromised when we suffer from even the mildest form of anhedonia.
Anhedonia is a disorder that is here to stay, and it already has its tentacles in many of us.
ANHEDONIA'S INNER WORLD
The inner world of severely anhedonic people can be summed up by the following comment of a high-achieving, success-driven patient: "My food seems tasteless. A beautiful woman no longer attracts me. Music no longer pleases me. I don't care if I never go to a movie again. My friends seem dull. I look forward to nothing. I don't want to die, but I don't care about living. I don't get a kick out of anything, except perhaps making some big deal come to reality."
And these are not the sentiments of a severely depressed patient. They are the experience of a lot of ordinary people. I know, because I meet them every day, wherever I go. I've just returned from a three-country speaking tour and found anhedonic people in South Africa, Germany, and Switzerland, just as I have in the United States.
How does anhedonia show itself? Anhedonic people smile very weakly, if at all. Someone cracks a joke, but they don't laugh when everyone else is laughing. They express little or no feelings even when grief or mourning is the appropriate emotion. The more severe the anhedonia, the more completely it shuts down the pleasure system and experience of any joyful feelings. Eventually it can cause a severe emotional disorder such as major depression. For most of us who suffer from what is called stress-induced anhedonia, however, the loss of pleasure sensitivity is more insidious and less severe, though still problematic. There's no fun to be had when you go through life always seeking that wow experience to scrape together a little bit of pleasure.
If you are wondering just how lacking you are in your ability to extract real pleasure from life, be patient. I will offer a test for anhedonia in the next chapter. This test will help you get a clearer picture of just how far down the road to annihilation you have taken your pleasure system.
I can best clarify what anhedonia feels like through two short stories.
Suzie has just given birth to her first child. It wasn't a very difficult labor, and everything went like clockwork. She had looked forward with great anticipation to having a baby, especially since she miscarried her first baby-a devastating loss. This baby would make up for her pain and fear that she would never be able to have a second chance at motherhood. So you can imagine her dismay when in the moments after the nurse placed her newborn baby in her arms, she felt no joy. It must be the effect of the drugs, or maybe I am just exhausted, she thought. Tomorrow I will feel more excited. But she didn't. Holding her baby, flesh of her flesh, left her feeling numb. No joy or pleasure whatsoever as she coddled this helpless, dependent gift of life. Welcome to anhedonia! In this case, it is being caused by postpartum depression.
Mary is a teenager. She's been learning to drive and was planning on getting a job soon so she could pay the matching half her father had promised and buy her own car. Most of her friends already had wheels, and this token of emerging adulthood meant a lot to her. She took her driving test and aced it. Walking back to the car with her license in hand, her father asked her how she felt. "Nothing," was her reply. He wasn't very surprised, since this has been her tone for some time now. Despite eagerly anticipating this significant milestone in her life, she was totally unmoved. Teenage anhedonia.
EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW ABOUT ANHEDONIA
The term anhedonia is derived from the Greek a- (without), and hedone (pleasure, delight). The word hedone is also the root of hedonism (a philosophy that emphasizes pleasure as an aim of life, and often considered to be sinful in Christian circles), hedonist (a pleasure seeker), and hedonophobia (an excessive fear of feeling pleasure).
To use metaphoric language, anhedonia is not having anything in your life that can move your heart. Your happiness is deadened because your joy is missing.
To the mental health professionals reading this book, let me say that I am not using the term anhedonia in the strict clinical sense. As every psychologist and psychiatrist knows, severe anhedonia is the cardinal symptom of such disorders as major depression and schizophrenia. No, I am talking about a more subtle and insidious loss, a decline over time of the ability to find joy in small events and simple experiences while being pushed into ever increasing levels of stimulation. What used to make us feel ecstatic now has no power to thrill us. It is the decline of the pleasure we were born with and nature intended us to enjoy before the modern, excessive pursuit of excitement took over and hijacked the brain's pleasure system. In a real sense, we have lost our pleasure by becoming addicted to pleasure that is outside the box of normal existence.
Pastors also know very well what I mean here. I do a lot of seminars for clergy. When they are young, just starting out on their calling and fresh from seminary, they could take great joy in what they were able to do for God. Every day was a thrilling adventure. But with time, subject to many of the factors I will be sharing in this book, something changed. Pleasure was lost. As one pastor said to me recently, "I no longer feel any pleasure in my work as a pastor. I don't enjoy my wife and family. And the other night, it dawned on me that I don't even find any pleasure in God anymore." An honest comment-but indicative of how widespread anhedonia has become.
But take heart, this is not a pessimistic book. You can repair the part of your brain that delivers deep, satisfying pleasure and become a joyful, happy person again. I know. I did it for myself. And I've helped many others do it as well.
UNCOVERING THE BRAIN'S PLEASURE SYSTEM
Simply put, anhedonia, the reduced ability to experience pleasure, is brought on, paradoxically, by the excessive pursuit of pleasure. Mainly it develops out of the high amount of stress most of us experience today. It is a by-product of the fantastic technological improvements in our world. We now have such a high level of stimulation that we can escape boredom in an instant.
Just think about it. Are you ever lonely? Just log on to your favorite Internet chat group and bye-bye loneliness. Bored? Turn on your iPod or watch a movie on your portable DVD player. Fed up? Grab your cell phone and text-message the person you are ticked off with to get it off your chest. Of course, your stress level will go higher when twenty seconds later you get a message back, venting on you. Need to work on a project or homework? Put your iPod earpiece in one ear, your cell phone earpiece in the other, turn on your laptop to check your e-mail, and now you can concentrate on your project or homework.
All of this stimulates your brain to the point of overload. Technology is revolutionizing our lives but ravaging our brains. A reasonable use of technology is good, but too much is bad as we will see.
THE BRAIN'S PLEASURE CENTER
This brings me to the central focus of this book. The problem of anhedonia revolves around an important part of the brain that is increasingly getting the attention of scientists. To really grasp the problem of anhedonia, you have to understand a little about how the brain works to deliver us pleasure. So bear with me.
Not too many years ago, scientists discovered that the brains of both humans and animals had what they called a reward or pleasure center. This hardwired system in the brain is responsible for creating the feeling we call pleasure. There are several pathways to this center, depending on what is creating the pleasure. This specific part of the brain has one exclusive and exquisite purpose: to deliver pleasure to our consciousness. This remarkable discovery happened quite by accident, and it's a story worth telling here.
In 1954 two researchers, Olds and Milner, were experimenting with implanted electrodes in a rat. They discovered that when they sent a small electric signal in one particular location in the brain, the animal would go into an unaccountable rage. They had discovered that the brain had a rage center. Each time this center was electrically stimulated, the animal would go into a rage and then stop as soon as the signal stopped.
One day, quite by mistake, the researchers put the electrode into an adjacent area. When they applied the signal, instead of creating a rage response, the animal seemed to like it. Really like it! So they set up a lever that the rat could press and deliver electrical signals to this newly discovered part of the brain whenever it chose to. And it chose to, all right. Again and again.
This area in the brain-which exists in all animals, including humans-was named the locus accumbens, but it is more commonly called the pleasure center. Very much later it was discovered that there are several centers in the brain that work together to deliver pleasure, but for the purpose in this book I will simply refer to the complex connections that help us know when something is pleasurable as the pleasure system. At the heart of this pleasure system is the pleasure center.
To show just how powerful this pleasure center is, controlled animal experiments with rats that could self-administer shots of pleasure as often as desired found that they would continue to do so as often as possible. One rat achieved a rate of ten thousand presses on the lever an hour. An animal could self-stimulate all day and night without rest and would forgo food and sex and even cross a painful grid that gave severe shocks to the feet to get to that pleasure-delivering lever.
Excerpted from THRILLED TO DEATH by Archibald D. Hart Copyright © 2007 by Archibald D. Hart. Excerpted by permission.
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