“Anhedonia”: the original title of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a motif in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, a word I felt immediately. Literally, it means “without pleasure” (an + hēdon), and it expresses something like the inability to enjoy things. According to experts, it’s associated with clinical depression, depressive disorder, endogenous depression, and major depressive episodes. I don’t feel depressed, or in denial about depression. I would even say that I am a happy person, give or take some seasonal affective disorder and how well I avoid cable news. But I frequently question why so many people find certain things pleasurable when I can’t. Pleasure, joy, amusement: these terms are obvious in the abstract—by definition, everyone likes “fun”—but they’re problematic in the particulars. Especially for me.
Technically, I don’t have anhedonia, since it’s associated with a loss of pleasure in things that one used to take pleasure in, and there’s too much that I never enjoyed in the first place. No Code Red Mountain Dew, KFC Double Down, Cool Ranch anything. No “Two and a Half Men,” “[Anything] with the Stars,” “Bridalplasty.” No “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Tik Tok,” the double down of “Glee”’s cast singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Maybe these are easy targets. Maybe I’m elitist. Maybe my age is showing. But everyone else seems to like them, and I like other popular entertainment, and I would never have liked them, even as a kid. Especially as kid. On the contrary, I like to think I’ve grown remarkably tolerant and mellow.
I can’t listen to a human voice on the radio unless it’s singing. Without Autotune. Or has a British accent on NPR. I can’t tolerate movies featuring talking dogs, especially if they depict real dogs in digitized lip synch. I have never watched a game of professional baseball on television except long enough to change the channel. I have never participated in any competitive sport, spending every high school phys ed class sitting in the bleachers talking to Tommy about Metallica. Mr. Arbuse didn’t care because I was wearing my gym uniform, as I’ve chronicled before. I now exercise only so that I may eat more ice cream. I have never sent a successful text message. I prefer not to talk on the phone. I don’t really like to drive. When I finally took my kids to Disney World, they—and my wife—loved every second of our eleven-hour days in the park. As I carried the backpack of water, extra clothes, and a camera while occasionally pushing the stroller through the crowds, I endured only by picturing soldiers, waist-deep in the quagmire, rain sheeting down in cacophonous chime on their helmets, under threat of enemy fire, fifty pounds of gear on their backs, arms straining to keep their guns above their heads. Later I felt sheepish, and guilty, about comparing my three days in Disney, the Happiest Place on Earth, with War, which Is, according to trusted sources, Hell. But it got me through the week.
At the risk of sounding like a personal ad, I like to play with my kids in a green, sunny park that doesn’t charge admission. I like complicated foods with simple, pronounceable ingredients. But I also like every breakfast cereal. I like to watch TV if the shows involve any two or more of the following: conspiracies, plot twists, glorification of dubious ethical behavior, foul language expressed in creative combinations, good-looking supernatural creatures. I like abrasive music by brutal musicians. I read as much as I can, preferably great, depressing novels where the main characters die. But I also like every magazine, and science for non-scientists, and superhero comics, where no one who dies ever stays dead. I eat pints and pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream but refuse all lesser brands. I can’t eat breakfast. I like to play the blues on the guitar. I love doing anything, or nothing, with my wife. I look forward to going to work. I write, not because I like to, but because I like to read what I wrote.
I don’t, in the end, have anhedonia, even if there’s much that I can’t—or that I refuse—to take pleasure in. With literature, writing, and the blues, it feels good to feel bad. Or maybe more people should feel bad for feeling good. Or perhaps the measure of life should not be pleasure at all—anhedonia’s lack, or its linguistic opposite, hedonism, where enough is not enough. More than “fun,” yet another thing to have, perhaps we can instead substitute “contented,” something to be. And I am.
At least sometimes.
Time: I wrote this a little over a year ago for my college literary journal and felt like revisiting and revising if for the blog. I wrote one or two a year for the last eight years, and these short personal essays at the time usually also took a little over an hour. They were, in retrospect, proto-blog entries.