Do rewards work on anhedonics?
February 27, 2013 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I want to reward myself for getting things done, but my depression poisons everything fun. Depressed Mefites, have you found any ways to self-reward that break through anhedonia?

I'm on medication and in therapy for depression, but while I'm trying to beat it I still need to get work done. A lot of productivity systems include some kind of self-reward--schedule your recreation first, take breaks, do something nice for yourself when you succeed. This makes a lot of sense to me, but I can't figure out how to implement it because all too often I can't think of anything that I look forward to doing. Go for a walk, hang out with a friend, eat a nice meal? Those are already obligations, things I should be doing more of to help with my depression. Indulge a favorite hobby? Hobbies take work to set up and usually just result in more opportunities for self-judgment. Buy myself something cool or get a massage? Could work, but my budget is too limited to do that especially often.

What can I try to break through the funk? Or am I thinking about this the wrong way? Maybe rewarding myself simply isn't something that will work while I'm in this state of mind, and I just need to find another strategy?
posted by cortisol to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
From what I've read, rewards that come some considerable time after a desired behavior don't work very well as reinforcements for that behavior because the delay means that as far as your brain is concerned, the behavior and the reward don't seem to have much to do with each other. It might be better to look for a tiny reinforcement you can execute very frequently while you doing the thing you want to do more of. What sort of stimulus gets you to do the same thing over and over? Cookies? Sad music?
posted by jon1270 at 1:12 PM on February 27, 2013

Best answer: How would you feel about rewarding yourself with lots of small arbitrary tokens (like gold star stickers) that document your productivity without imposing much of a burden? Since you would be motivated by buying cool stuff or getting a massage, you could decide to splurge on something like that when you get X stickers.
posted by steinwald at 1:17 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was in a similar situation, buying stuff on the internet is what worked for me. I spent some time on Etsy and put a whole bunch of things I liked into the shopping cart and when I finished the week-long task, I just picked one and bought it. This was a four-week course I was doing that suggested rewards at the end of every week, so it might work differently for you if you are needing rewards more often. Maybe you could give yourself gold stars and when you get 10 (or 20 or whatever) you get to buy yourself a treat. (Unless gold stars will make you feel dumb or bad, which it might make me feel when I'm depressed, in which case you might need some other record system.)

Buying stuff on the internet worked for me because the course was done online, so I could reward myself literally within seconds of accomplishing the task, which is good conditioning. Pre-choosing rewards and having them already in the shopping cart took any dilemma out of it. I also needed it to be immediate, because I was depressed and my memory wasn't great so sometimes I would forget. Or worse, I would talk myself out of the reward because I didn't think I really deserved it anyway. Depression is a bitch.

This is a great list of affordable luxuries.
This question might also provide answers for you.
posted by looli at 1:19 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Never mind nice meals. Coffee. Lunch. Tea. Smoothie. No cup of coffee for you until you start X and no lunch until you complete Y.

Also, you can do points. Assign points to tasks based on how much you dread them and set yourself some rewards: at Y points you can buy a massage, but you can also save those points and when they accumulate to Z amount, you can buy an... iPad or something.

Also: timers. I use timers to kick myself, paired with lying when needed: "You have to do this for five minutes. If it's dreadful, you can stop and play Angry Birds/stare out the window/cry in the bathroom, but you must do this task until the timer dings."
posted by DarlingBri at 1:23 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was depressed, my reward was that if I completed a predetermined list of tasks during the day, I was officially not allowed to feel bad about myself for the rest of the day. For me it wad the only reward system that worked.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:42 PM on February 27, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I know how hard it is to break through to enjoyment of hobbies when you're not feeling well. But if you go in with the right mindset it can be done, and it's worth it to have a productive rewarding way to fill your time.

You are going to SUCK ASS at first if you've never done it or you're out of the habit. So you gotta start super slow and then stop when you get frustrated. Keep doing this even though it isn't fun, just a little bit each day or every other day. With persistence you'll gain ground and get your feet under you and then it will start to be rewarding.

I learned from my own experience that if I wait until I'm feeling great to start finding ways to enrich my life I'll wait forever. Start the habits now and they will bolster your strength and then when you start feeling good you'll have some solid groundwork under you to sustain it.

If you let the depression keep you from doing enjoyable things, it's winning. Doing them anyway damages the credibility of the depression.

Again, it WILL be difficult and frustrating. But bit by bit...
posted by TheRedArmy at 2:45 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also suggesting smaller/faster/dumber rewards. Rewards that require no (or practically no) activation energy to achieve. Gold stars, a round of a silly game on your phone, blasting a cheezy 80s song, making a new cup of tea, buying something already sitting in your online shopping cart... heck, I've even used the tiny hit of crossing something off my list using my favorite highlighter on days when I feel kind of low. Accept that fact that these rewards are silly; hell, embrace their pointlessness if you've gotta, but enjoy them anyway.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:26 PM on February 27, 2013

You might try modding the online productivity game Chore Wars to fit your goals (instead of household chores, anything you want/need to be doing but aren't, broken into small and achievable chunks). It lets you play w/friends/family, so you have extra incentive to rack up points (even if they aren't for the same tasks as your friends).

SuperBetter is another online gamelike option.
posted by pavane at 4:38 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I really like the gold star/points system suggestions, especially since, as noted by jon1270 and looli, they can be immediate. Coming up with a list of point values and their corresponding rewards sounds like a fun exercise.

Greg Nog, moving to an apartment that allows cats can be the 50,000-point tier on my reward list. :)

No cup of coffee for you until you start X and no lunch until you complete Y.
Haha. If I did this I'd skip lunch every day instead of only about half the time. Maybe I should give myself a gold star for eating lunch.
posted by cortisol at 4:45 PM on February 27, 2013

Best answer: Not too long ago, as part of a therapy group I was in, I was presented with something called the "Adult Pleasant Events Schedule" and encouraged to pick 5 things from it to do every week. This seems to be a pretty similar list. The thing about it that really struck me was how simple a lot of the activities are. I'm used to thinking about "doing something fun" as having to be a big production. Then I am intimidated by how much effort I will need to put into, say, joining a sport or arranging to go out with friends, so I don't do it, and then I feel like a bad, lame person for not doing fun things. But a lot of the Pleasant Events are very simple, easy pleasures: Driving, Going home from work, Thinking about buying something, etc. These are enjoyable things, but I feel like I needed someone to give me a list like this and instructions in order to just give myself permission to, say, eat a donut and like it, or read a stupid gossip blog, or whatever works for you.
posted by bookish at 4:57 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

When I'm depressed I like to watch TV shows (and read websites) with no redeeming qualities. Those are good rewards because they don't feel productive, they aren't trying to teach you anything, and they have a built-in end time. It takes zero effort, too. I would watch the Housewives series and crap like that, and feel better for 30 minutes or so.
posted by Pomo at 6:28 PM on February 27, 2013

I kind of know what you mean. I get in depressive moods where I'm no harm to myself, but can't enjoy anything I usually would -- pedicures, nice meals, movies, time with friends, workouts, etc.

One of the things, weirdly enough, that still can get a good feeling out of me is this line of bath products from Philosophy that smell like cake, candy, margaritas, cookies, sorbet, etc.

For some reason I enjoy that more than buying and eating a sweet treat, and I find the shower/bath to be a good retreat place when I have anxiety and moodiness because of the water and the fact that the bathroom doesn't have all the "stuff" of normal life to distract - books, clothes, knicknacks etc. Also the smell of vanilla and similar things helps.

Can you make a bath treat part of your reward?
posted by sweetkid at 9:18 PM on February 27, 2013

How about, as a reward, you get a certain number of minutes where you get to do NOTHING, absolutely guilt free. No worrying about not doing all those nice things you're supposed to be doing for yourself. Because this is it. Your reward.

Just lie down there and pretend you're a starfish. Without a thought in the world, and beholden to no one. Isn't that nice?
posted by pimli at 1:25 AM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

When I am in my worst depressive episodes, you can bet your ass I DO count it as a major accomplishment if I eat lunch. Or take a shower. Or change out of the clothes I've been wearing for the last three days. Or remember to feed the dogs. Or even get out of bed. So ABSOLUTELY give yourself credit in any way you choose for doing those daily tasks that non-depressed people think of as routine no-brainers.

I personally have found that rewards don't really work on me. If I absolutely need to be productive when I am otherwise really depressed, I play a little game where I tell myself I only have to work on this task for 5-10 minutes and I can do anything for only 5 minutes, right? Usually, by the time 5-10 minutes have passed, I start to feel "into" it a little more (not quite in a zone, but getting close). And then it feels a little easier to just get the damn thing done already.

Another trick is to picture how mortified/embarrassed/fired/poor I will be if I don't get my work done. Maybe fear is a good motivator when rewards aren't working?
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:55 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Constrained by not wanting to reward myself with food or spend money on much else, I came up with a reward of listening to a new album/artist off my always growing but rarely tackled Spotify list for new music. Not only did I convert listening from a perceived "to-do" to a reward, but it's easy, it's novel and refreshing, and it's often either cheering or cathartic.
posted by zizania at 6:48 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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