Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of “blah” — I’m engaged and involved in my life, but I don’t feel like I have a ton of joy in each day. Things feel more like a slog than anything else, even though I logically know that there’s lots for me to be happy about and grateful for.
It’s disorienting… because even though I know that I have many reasons to feel joy, I don’t. And it seems like depression to me, although I know it’s not. I know what depression feels like — this is something different.
But surprise! Here’s a tasty new piece of info that explains a lot. Here’s the scientific abstract (from a paper I can’t afford to download):
Studies of subjective well-being have conventionally relied upon self-report, which directs subjects’ attention to their emotional experiences. This method presumes that attention itself does not influence emotional processes, which could bias sampling. We tested whether attention influences experienced utility (the moment-by-moment experience of pleasure) by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the activity of brain systems thought to represent hedonic value while manipulating attentional load. Subjects received appetitive or aversive solutions orally while alternatively executing a low or high attentional load task. Brain regions associated with hedonic processing, including the ventral striatum, showed a response to both juice and quinine. This response decreased during the high-load task relative to the low-load task. Thus, attentional allocation may influence experienced utility by modulating (either directly or indirectly) the activity of brain mechanisms thought to represent hedonic value.
What this tells me is that:
- When studying how well people feel, scientists have usually just asked the people and taken their word for it.
- Scientists have been looking for a more reliable way to measure this (seems wise, as we often don’t know our own minds). They used fMRI.
- A group of subjects were given things to drink that tasted good (juice) and bad (quinine), and fMRI imaging showed that their brains registered a reaction to each.
- The thing is, when the participants were working on a more mentally demanding task, their brains didn’t register as much reaction as when they were doing something easy. So, their experience was dulled — especially in the part of the brain that experiences pleasure.
And how does this affect me? What does it mean to me?
Well, I’ve been troubled somewhat by not feeling like I’m enjoying my life as much as I could (or should). There has been a lot going on with me, lately, and a lot of it is good. It’s wonderful. I am incredibly fortunate and blessed. However, I don’t really feel like things are going great.
It’s weird. I feel ungrateful and unaccountably “flat” about much of my life. I know that things are going really well for me, and I have so much to be grateful for. And I am grateful. I logically know that I am incredibly fortunate, and I appreciate that.
But I’m just not feeling it.
And it’s throwing me off.
What this research tells me is that it could be because I’m working so hard cognitively. I’m really pushing myself mentally, to pay attention to a lot of things, and it might be keeping me from enjoying the things around that I deserve to enjoy. I’ve really worked hard to get where I am, and I’m in a position to enjoy those experiences. But I don’t have the enjoyment.
Perhaps because my brain is too busy working at tasks to “get” that there’s more to life than work and progress.
I’ll have to think about this. But not too hard. I need to find ways to lighten the load on my brain.
Maybe then, I will find more joy.