How Covid Sucked Joy out of our Lives

Depressed young black woman lying in bed alone and feeling lonely, spending day in bed

Recently a friend was sharing how he no longer seemed to feel joy about anything in life. He felt that it wasn’t the same as depression but more about everything seeming blah. “Where did my joy go?” became his question. 

Some research led me to any interesting possible diagnosis: Anhedonia. According to the Explore Health website “Anhedonia simply means ‘without pleasure,’ according to the American Psychological Association. ‘People who have anhedonia basically have lost the ability to experience pleasure for things they once enjoyed,’ Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, a psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. ‘You feel ‘blah’ about things that would traditionally make you happy or excited, [and] you don’t care about much and your reaction to things is flat or nonexistent.’ 

According to WebMD there are two main types of anhedonia: 

  •  You don’t want to spend time with other people. 
  •  You don’t enjoy physical sensations. A hug leaves you feeling empty rather than nurtured. Your favorite foods taste bland. Even sex can lose its appeal. 

“Anhedonia makes relationships, including those with friends and family members, a struggle. With the reward of enjoyment gone, it’s hard to get motivated to spend time with others. You might turn down invitations and skip events like concerts, parties, and even one-on-one get-togethers because you no longer believe there’s any benefit in taking part.” 

From the Real Simple website it states “While anhedonia appears to mimic boredom, it’s distinct in that it’s usually coupled with a loss of motivation to even give things a try. A person with anhedonia feels like there’s no point trying anything, since nothing feels good anymore.”  

The author of the article, Seraphina Seow, suggests that we consider all the many social losses we experienced throughout the year and half pandemic: not being able to go to restaurants, movie theaters, malls, church, sports events, school or just visit friends live, to appreciate possible underlying causes for anhedonia. 

depressed young man devastated feeling hurt suffering

She goes on to explain the neuroscience of anhedonia.  “The brain regions use a chemical called dopamine to communicate with each other. Dopamine is used to decide what’s rewarding and how you want to attain it. It’s also used to decide whether something is threatening… these reward circuit regions may not interact as well with each other in people with anhedonia. And therefore, this weakened communication between regions suggests unbalanced levels of dopamine, says Tiffany Ho, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UC San Francisco. 

Ho also nods to the possible role that prolonged brain and body inflammation—which is often observed in someone with depression and anhedonia after experiencing stressful events—can play in setting the stage for less interactive reward circuit regions.” 

The article from goes on to say, “Now that we have so many fearful and emotional things going on in the world, the brain is responding more and more to threats and less and less to things that are rewarding, just based on what we’re exposed to…. The reward circuit and threat circuit are constantly running in our brain, but when one is used more and takes up more brain energy, the other ends up running less efficiently.” 

According to the Explore Health article, Dr. Albers-Bowling says “…much of the brain is involved in allowing a person to experience enjoyment, and the thinking is that, when these fail, that’s when anhedonia can set in. There are several parts of the brain believed to also be involved in the ability to experience joy and pleasure like the amygdala, which processes emotions, the prefrontal cortex, which plans and processes rewards. These brain systems basically shut down.

Stressed woman in mask with hands on her head, sick of Covid .

There is no direct treatment for anhedonia. Going to a mental health professional can be helpful. In addition, the author says, “Sometimes you might need to recondition yourself to find joy…If a patient use to love going on runs, for example, they might be advised to take a small walk to get back into the habit, with the hope of finding enjoyment or pleasure during the process. The key here is to take it slow, rather than jumping back into your pre-anhedonia routine, which might be overwhelming.”  

An overriding message by the various experts stresses the importance of sharing your stories and experiences. People you know care about you and will listen without judging or criticizing will be helpful during this time. If you realize someone you care about is experiencing anhedonia, you might want to reach out to them to provide that all-important relational connection, even if they seem shut down. 

Invitation for Reflection: 

1.Do the symptoms of anhedonia resonate with you? Do you know others who might be experiencing it? 

2. How does this information influence your understanding of how the pandemic may have caused anhedonia in you and/or others you care about. What are some intentional steps you can take to address possible anhedonia. 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute