A hallmark symptom of depression is known as “anhedonia,” or the inability to experience pleasure. When depressed clients come into the office I often ask about things they do for recreation. Very often the answer is “recently, nothing.” I then ask about what a client used to enjoy before the depression set in, as a client’s formerly pleasurable activities can be used as a rough measure of therapeutic progress.
Over the years I’ve noticed some clients, even when not depressed in a clinical sense, take a very passive “just get through the day approach.” They don’t look to thrive, just simply survive. Whether or not the meaning of life is to enjoy oneself or not isn’t my place to say but I do feel an obligation to help clients grab life by the horns. To that end, when clients are bogged down by the grind of daily life I often direct the conversation toward how they want to enjoy their time when not dealing with the regular hassles of day to day existence. Such was the case with a client whom I’ll call Ira, a late 30’s gentleman who came to therapy for what he called ‘a general malaise.’ Ira didn’t have what one might consider a bad life. He had a strong marriage, good job, healthy children, but he failed to capitalize on those things and use his day in a way that made him happy.
“Ira, where does your mind tend to go when you wake up in the morning?”
“Generally about what I need to do that day and what problems I’ll have to deal with.”
“Okay, so your day immediately begins with a negative tinge: what bad things will come my way? Is that right?”
“Definitely. That’s how it goes.”
“Well, although we can’t take away the normal hassles of everyday life I wonder what stops you from thinking about enjoyable things you have planned or tasks you want to accomplish that day.”
“During the week it’s difficult because of work.”
“Well we can certainly discuss how you can feel better about your job, but for now, how about the weekend?”
“Is that what you do? Think about fun things you want to do that day?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
The topic of self-disclosure needs about 100 blog posts to be covered at least somewhat in depth, but I am considered by my peers much more liberal about discussing my life than other shrinks. I generally don’t have a problem sharing information, especially in this case where I can serve as a role model for how behavioral planning exercises can be of benefit. As soon as I was ready to speak, however, I drew a blank.
What do I do for fun?
“I’m sorry, did you ask what I do for fun?”
Huh…I hadn’t thought of that so specifically as of late. What do I do for fun? Let’s see…I enjoy…wine. Wii. Working out. Those all start with ‘w.’ Is that a coincidence? I like hanging out with my friends. But they’re mostly Caucasian. Is that really ‘White friends’ then?
“I enjoy sports,” I finally said after what probably seemed like, and actually were, minutes.
“Watching them or playing them?” Ira asked.
“Mostly watching, but I play sometimes too.”
“Is that it?” Ira asked. “You watch sports all day?”
“Well I do enjoy a few things but they all seem to run together. I generally like to have a few friends come over and we play video games and drink wine.” Wow, who wouldn’t want my life? I’m like some sort of Pleasure Giant!
“Oh….kay,” Ira said, seeing me as some gaming geek with an alcohol problem.
“Maybe you could try that?” I said, brimming with no self-confidence.
“Right,” Ira said, no doubt wondering how quickly he could get to the bank to stop payment on the check he would soon be writing.
“I guess my personal anecdote on staving off depression and living a happy life isn’t much of a help,” I said, defeated like a pathetic Guitar Hero player who can’t get past ‘Rock and Roll All Night’ on Hard.
“You know, my wife has always been saying that we should take a trip to the Far East. You know, China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam?”
I am aware of some of the countries that comprise the Far East. “Wow, that sounds great.”
Unlike my life.
“So,” Ira said, a bit of sour mood beginning to drip off his suit, “maybe a trip like that would be the thing. At least it would give me something to look forward to, more so than getting drunk with my friends and playing Dungeons and Dragons or whatever it is you do. Thanks Dr. Rob!”
The moral of the story: sometimes people need to see how lame your own life is to feel better about theirs. That’s why I’m such a successful therapist.
If you enjoyed this piece please consider giving your blessing to my Facebook Fan Page. Thank you.