Anhedonia: The Disease of Happy People

Falling in love stereotypically brings with it a come-what-may optimism. It is a symptom of […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.15.18

Falling in love stereotypically brings with it a come-what-may optimism. It is a symptom of what we are feeling so strongly at the present moment. Never in our lives have we felt so magnetized in the present moment than in these with this one person—we can sit and talk until three in the morning, the slightest touch is absolutely electric. In this newfound happiness, our perspectives suddenly shift: if we lost our jobs, or never made money again, or every friend we knew died, everything would be okay, because she (or he) loves me. Love can turn the smuggest of hipsters into earnest converts.

Of course, it doesn’t end there, otherwise the world would be made up of weepy, jobless lovers. No, it doesn’t stay that way, and mainly it doesn’t stay that way because people hate being happy. Happiness, for the modern lover, is about as attractive to us as hugging a cactus.

In his very first book, On Love, which the bastard wrote when he was 21, Alain de Botton tells the love story of a fictional couple who meet on a plane and the developments that take place in their relationship. De Botton uses the couple’s story as a way of talking about all couples’ stories—the games we play with one another, the types of neuroses that come to the surface in intimacy, and the total bliss of finally being with someone who you feel “gets” you.

De Botton’s couple is at the apex of their infatuation with one another when they decide to take a long weekend in a beautiful villa in the Spanish countryside. The weather is just right, the house is as jaw-dropping as the view, and the couple have cozily settled into their first bottle of wine on the balcony. It is only then, in the settling in, that Chloe begins to feel sick, and it becomes necessary to call a doctor. Within moments, the doctor knows just what’s befallen her:

Dr. Saavedra had diagnosed a case of anhedonia, a disease defined by the British Medical Association as a reaction remarkably close to mountain sickness resulting from the sudden terror brought on by the threat of happiness. It was a common disease among tourists in this region of Spain, faced in these idyllic surroundings with the sudden realization that earthly happiness might be within their grasp, and prey therefore to a violent physiological reaction designed to counteract such a daunting possibility.

Because happiness is so terrifying and anxiety-inducing to accept, somewhat unconsciously, Chloe and I had always tended to locate hedonia either in memory or in anticipation. Though the pursuit of happiness was our avowed goal, it was accompanied by an implicit belief that it would be realized somewhere in the very distant future—a belief challenged by the felicity we had found in Aras de Alpuente and, to a lesser extent, in each other’s arms.

“The threat of happiness.” While this may sound a bit dubious, it has been the fascination of philosophers and playwrights and psychoanalysts for centuries: what frustrates our long-awaited pleasures? Why does the arrival of vacation week bring its own flavor of disappointment? Think about your own moments of “altitude sickness,” as de Botton describes, those few, unforgettably blissful experiences you only wish you could have bottled up forever, the ones which were so happy yet, almost because they were so happy, were all the more painful. The experiences were fragile and finite.

Maybe you are a Jimmy Buffett disciple and you have no idea how happiness could ever be a threat to your Margaritaville M.O. Or maybe your decades of mindfulness meditation have made you completely capable of living “in the moment,” serenely detached from the kind of ennui I’m describing. But for everyone else, the question remains: Why is happiness elusive, even in the happiest moments?

One explanation is that we innately (though unconsciously) thwart our own happiness. As Vince Gilligan (creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) has so brilliantly shown us time and again through Slippin’ Jimmy and Walter White, we each have our own inner-saboteur. There’s a little bit of tragic hero in each of us, whether we know it or not, who will always feel dissatisfied the status quo, even if the status quo happens to look a lot like a Corona commercial. This is very similar territory to addiction: there’s a little bit of anarchy in the human stew, an “appetite for destruction,” if you will, that can’t be sated until it has made a mess of what it originally came to for sustenance.

This still doesn’t answer the question of why we do this, why, when we are finally situated in the pool chair under the umbrella, we can’t sit still. A friend of mine told me sheepishly that, after months planning a vacation to a beautiful eco-resort, he spent several hours in the beach chair on Zillow, looking for local houses on the market, fantasizing about one future day where he could buy his own slice of paradise.

Whether it’s the big trip or the wedding day or the culmination of a career goal, happiness arriving in the present tense is a threat because it robs us of our everyday telos—the pursuit of happiness in the future. As de Botton describes Chloe’s anhedonia in this beautiful moment in the Spanish countryside, “the present had, for a brief moment, ceased to lack anything the future might hold.” Anxiety stems from the recognition that the moment I’ve been living for, the basket in which I’ve piled all my eggs, is this moment, the one happening right now. All other happinesses I pursue in the future will just be repetitions of the same equation.

Not only does this put immense pressure (law) on the present moment to live up to snuff (which almost guarantees its disappointment), but it also disorients our whole framework for how we progress through life. If this is what it’s all about, well, what’s it for?

This is the kind of despair that writers like Walker Percy and Soren Kierkegaard were hoping to attune our ears towards. Anhedonia, the recognition of this incomplete happiness, is the first step in seeing that this equation can fill a life and lead nowhere. The pursuit of happiness won’t work—not with a couple, not with a career—because the pursuit’s lead navigator is looking in all the wrong places. Sadly, true happiness, the kind de Botton’s couple found in the beginning of their love story, and probably your own, didn’t happen because you knew where you were going. It happened despite your best-laid attempts to manipulate an outcome. Like Mr. Magoo, the happy outcome came blindly.

De Botton is an atheist, and while he isn’t flippant about religion, he conflates our continual projections of future happiness with a similar hope granted by certain religions, “in which life on earth is only a prelude to an ever-lasting and far more pleasant heavenly existence.” I myself am always a bit cynical about such pie-in-the-sky Christianity, which banks it all on the afterlife, and seems to thus minimize the present’s suffering with the impending glory of the Kingdom. But maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. This is, after all, what Christianity has on offer, a Savior, who opened a way to an everlasting and pleasant heavenly existence. And one which isn’t constrained by numbered days.

Who knows, that promise might also be what allows us to take the pressure off our chosen moments of fulfillment. That way, any present pleasure is outright stripped of the expectation to save, which would undoubtedly make anything more pleasurable. In the shade of a far greater happiness, the pool chair would at least sit a little bit more comfortably.