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Discussing apathy - Suffering From Elation
A Survivor's Tale
Discussing apathy
Unstructured ramble ahoy!

Joe went to the doctor this morning to get a referral for a shrink. The doctor believes he's suffering from minor depression and major apathy.

Afterwards, we both had a laugh about it. We talk about everything and we both knew this diagnosis or something very much like it was coming, and I think we're both just glad we've got to the point where Joe's able to do something about it. The doc thinks he might wind up on medication for a little while, just to reset his brain. This concept makes perfect sense to me. After a horrendous 2007, during which I suffered from a few months worth of brief but powerful depression and made some bad choices, I started taking medication in early 2008. I was only on the meds for a few months and, along with a few sessions of therapy, they really helped me climb back on the sanity horse. Yee-ha.

Medication for a broken brain is like a cast for a broken leg. It takes the pressure off so you can continue to function while the wound heals.

So, a diagnosis of apathy. Is apathy an actual condition?

Apparently, the answer is "maybe". It's not officially recognised by psychiatrists in the same way depression is. Wikipedia tells us this:
Mental health journalist and author John McManamy argues that although psychiatrists do not explicitly deal with the condition of apathy, it is a psychological problem for some depressed people, in which they get a sense that "nothing matters", the "lack of will to go on and the inability to care about the consequences". He describes depressed people who "...cannot seem to make [themselves] do anything," who "can't complete anything," and who do not "feel any excitement about seeing loved ones." He acknowledges that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not discuss apathy. In a Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences article from 1991, Dr Robert Marin MD claimed that apathy occurs due to brain damage or neuropsychiatric illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson's, or Huntington’s, or else an event such as a stroke. Marin argues that apathy should be regarded as a syndrome or illness. A review article by Robert van Reekum MD et al. from the University of Toronto in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry (2005) claimed that "depression and apathy were a package deal" in some populations which may help illustrate what people mean when they say that "The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy."

Joe's apathy is not terrible. He functions as a human being. He does enjoy many parts of his life. He is in a strong relationship and he holds a job - not only that, his boss is impressed enough with his work that Joe's being promoted to store manager - but behind closed doors Joe struggles to find an overarching narrative or meaning to his life. I've faced this myself at times - I suppose it's something facing many of us who don't buy into religion or fiscal/social success as belief systems - the thought, "Why does any of this matter?" We aren't capable of religious belief; we ask too many questions and are dissatisfied with the answers we've received thus far, and we also know that promotions, money, fancy houses and nice cars don't actually bring you happiness. Generally, finding things in life that matter to you personally is enough to satisfy people like us; we create our own meaning. Joe sometimes struggles with that part.

I wonder, is apathy on the uprise? This is probably an assumption, but I think that we as a society live easier lives now than ever before. Gen Y has never faced conscription, or felt the shadow of a war that encompasses the entire world. In Australia we automatically get loans to attend university, our basic medical care is covered, and a safety net prevents unemployment from meaning "head directly to the streets, do not pass GO, do not collect $200". Most of what we want and need is delivered to us with minimal effort. Sometimes I think entertainment is such a big deal now because we need all those flashy films and shiny toys to distract us from the essential meaninglessness of our lives.

I think the happiest people may be those who feel like they're making some small difference to the world: social and medical workers, Christians preaching the word of God, architects working on projects that will literally change the face of the world in which they live, writers and activists espousing messages they care about deeply - and then, on the other end of the scale, there are those who enjoy the act of consumerism and the struggle for social success so much they don't stop to consider what it all means. Ignorance is bliss.

I think, therefore I am miserable.

Zooming back in on apathy, check out this interesting graph!

"Flow" is one of my favourite mental states. At Disney (and presumably elsewhere) they called it "The Zone". It's the zen-like trance you fall into when you're doing highly skilled work you've become so good at, it's second nature. This state is achievable when you've worked through the craft of your skill area - that massive mental checklist you need to go through to inbetween correctly, or shoot an arrow accurately, or perform dance moves with technical perfection - so often they are ingrained in your subconscious, so all that's left for your brain to do is let your artistry take over. Artistry is what happens when craft becomes second nature. In my experience, 'flow' is a difficult state to reach, but a rewarding one.

Apathy is on the opposite end of the scale, the state that exists between 'boredom' and 'worry'. It's also at the point of the graph where both 'challenge level' and 'skill level' are at their lowest. Is it any wonder we see so much apathy in our generation? Our world is designed for the lowest common denominator. We don't really have to think about anything. We've worked diligently for generations to make the western world practically automated: robotic vaccuums for our floors, news delivered in ultra-simplified headlines and soundbites, fast food standardised all over the world and served to you cheap, hot and ready in under a minute.

I lost a ten-year career to apathy. It's hard to make art when you just don't care about it anymore. My last job was making art for pokies - I don't know what they're called in America, but I'm referring to electronic slot machines. On good days the job was enjoyable, primarily because my coworkers were amazing people, and secondarily because it was easy - I was using expertise I'd already developed. On the graph above, my mood at that job fell under 'relaxation' - high skill, low effort. Sounds ideal, right?

There were two problems. One was that my skill level was enough of a match for the job that I didn't have to try terribly hard anymore. Relatively, my "high skill" no longer felt like "high skill" to me; it felt about as challenging as washing the dishes. Less challenging, actually. So when you're working at a low effort job and you feel like you're using low skill, you slide back into apathy. I could have worked to be a better artist - branched out into real media, for example - but the job didn't require it, and as time went by, I cared less and less.

The second problem was this: On the days when management frustrated me, I found myself thinking: "none of this matters!" I had no deeper meaning to turn to; I couldn't think to myself, "Well, management sucks but at least I'm out here helping people / changing lives / learning something new / pushing the boundaries of myself and/or my field." I couldn't even tell myself, "Well, at least my work is bringing joy to somebody" - it wasn't! I was making art to lure sad, poor, foolish people into throwing their money into the pockets of wealthy, immoral people. Nothing'll kill the last of an artist's creativity faster than being part of something like that. Sometimes I think I'll spend the rest of my life making up for it.

Our lives are not, by nature, particularly hard anymore. We need to make them hard for ourselves. It's not organic, sure - it's giving our lives meaning that we generate, not meaning pushed upon us by necessity - but there's a paralell that's summed up in a great exchange in "Back to the Future III" (of all places!):

Doc: "And in the future, we don't need horses. We have motorized carriages called automobiles."
Saloon Old-Timer #3: "If everybody's got one of these auto whatsits, does anybody walk or run anymore?"
Doc: "Of course we run, but for recreation, for fun."
Saloon Old-Timer #3: "Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?"

Doc's explanation is not entirely accurate. He's right in that we no longer need to walk or run to live in this society. But the majority of us who run don't do it for fun. Running itself is actually kind of painful. The fun lies not in the act, but in the results: endorphins, a good body, a feeling of strength and wellbeing.

Likewise, a person could easily live a life in modern Australia with minimal effort. We no longer need to strive, or to put ourselves into difficult or challenging situations. But our minds crave a challenge. We need life to be hard not because being outside our comfort zone is fun, but because the fitter mind that results is fun... or at least, more fun than apathy.

Don't let yourself get bored, guys. Don't let everything become too easy. Think hard about your life. When was the last time you tried to learn something new? When was the last time you felt challenged? Frightened? Exhausted? Triumphant?

When was the last time you felt like your actions mattered?
7 have fought ~ fight the power!
alby_lion From: alby_lion Date: August 27th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC) (Link)


I endorse this post. I think life by its nature is difficult. It takes effort to even get up in the morning. And it's a great disservice to have somebody do that for us. You've also kind of hit the meaning of Life on the head at the end there, as I see it. You can only get out what you put in.

Sometimes I think entertainment is such a big deal now because we need all those flashy films and shiny toys to distract us from the essential meaninglessness of our lives.

Incidentally, in a round-about way and deep down, that's why I want to be a film/TV actor - to give people something to believe in, or at least an option or a jumping off point. I want something to inspire people, something to quote, as you did.

(In the US they're called slot machines, slots, or video poker. Every time you mention your last job, I'm reminded of the song Blow up the Pokies.)

stonelizard From: stonelizard Date: August 27th, 2010 06:57 am (UTC) (Link)
I find this a very interesting post - and I hope Joe feels better soon. I have known a few people who went on meds for minor depression and they all improved greatly and then went off the meds.

The whole "meaning" or "why does this matter?" issue is a very interesting one. As society in general moves away from religious presense and also because life has become "easier" (We are not generally going to die in the western world if we don't work dawn to dusk)I think we have lost a lot of purpose. I have actually been thinking about this recently as I realised I have no real life "goal" asides from finding an awesome job. And learning to drive. I have no five, ten, long term plan.

I have also read that people who end up having children are generally more secure in their goals - to raise a child is a big goal. However, not wanting children I am finding it restless as to where I put my commitments.

I am thinking I might volunteer somewhere or help a charity in some way. Perhaps be a Big Sister or buy a house and do it up... or buy land and turn it into a wildlife preserve or something with satisfaction or a big goal.

I also found live in Australia to be really, really easy. Everything was pleasant. I didn't need to fight for things as much as do in Britain. While it was an awesome life (and I would return to it!) I find so much more pleasure in a slightly harder life. We as a species are NOT made for an easy life. Look what's happening to us!

I love your last paragraph. I myself like to push and learn all the time. I am learning website design and photo manipulations right now. I am planning on undertaking a degree at somepoint. Husband often asks why I am doing these things - because I can't stop learning. I get bored easily. I like goals. He is content just enjoying life, but I need to strive and fight and reach goals. I think that's a good thing.

Going to stop here as I could keep going all day.
leggz From: leggz Date: August 27th, 2010 09:24 am (UTC) (Link)
When was the last time you tried to learn something new? When was the last time you felt challenged? Frightened? Exhausted? Triumphant?

When was the last time you felt like your actions mattered?

Thankfully having recently studied and embarked on a new career I can honestly say I've been challenged, frightened and balls-out exposed on something of a precipice at least once every week for the past gwo years.
I know Interior Design isn't the most selfless, giving and noble pursuit by honestly I find it to be an amazing and challenging industry. I'm constantly trying to marry my tastes with the clients' and being amazed by new developments and materials and combinations that make rooms and emotions SING.

I don't want to defend my job, more express my overall sense of blessing thatit fits so well with my interests and skill sets and will (hopefully) always be fresh for me.
leggz From: leggz Date: August 27th, 2010 09:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Excuse the spelling, I'm still battling with my new iPhone. :P
pseudomanitou From: pseudomanitou Date: August 27th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
"When was the last time you felt like your actions mattered?"

Each and every time I help someone :)
bizarreoptimism From: bizarreoptimism Date: August 28th, 2010 03:05 am (UTC) (Link)
I wonder, is apathy on the uprise?

In our generation, it sure as hell is.

... don't really have anything to add to that, either. Just that I really _feel_ for our generation sometimes. We were kinda set up by the world to have expectations about our futures that not only weren't gonna happen, but didn't have anything to do with the Point of everything anyway. :\
c_eagle From: c_eagle Date: August 28th, 2010 06:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow... another great post! *winghugz*

When it mattered? ...hmmm... well, it varies, but it does happen now and then.
When I have a teaching session with a customer, and I know they really appreciated me and learned. Or if I solve their broken machine problems before it goes too far to fix.
When I hear that someone made a decision based on my advice, and are happy with the choice they made.
When someone tells me they read something I wrote years ago, and it had a positive impact on them.

Things like that... *tailwaggle*.. :}
7 have fought ~ fight the power!