Setting Goals When You Have Anhedonia and Depression

April 23, 2021 Natasha Tracy

It is hard to set goals when you're anhedonic because of depression. In fact, many times it feels impossible. When you don't feel any pleasure, why have a goal? And it's not like the other symptoms of depression lend themselves to goals either, so it's no wonder people have problems setting goals with depression-driven anhedonia.

What Is Anhedonia in Depression?

Anhedonia is medically defined as:

"Loss of the capacity to experience pleasure. The inability to gain pleasure from normally pleasurable experiences."1

It's a bit confusing in the literature, but basically, anhedonia means you may experience significantly less pleasure than you normally would from pleasurable events or you may experience none. Either way, it's an awful symptom to deal with even for a short time, let alone for years like many people have (including me).

How Anhedonia and Depression Affect Goal-Setting

Goals are set when we want to achieve something. But why do we want to achieve something? We want to achieve because doing so will feel good. It will give us pleasure. The trouble is if you can't feel pleasure, that cuts the loop. That means you have no motivation to set a goal as achieving it won't feel good. Why go through the trouble of working hard to achieve a goal when the end result is you feeling the same way as when you started? I have been trying to get my head around this problem for years.

Setting Goals in Spite of Depression and Anhedonia

I have found, however, that I still need some sort of goal (or goals) to aim for even with anhedonia and depression. Life feels too rudderless without any.

There are two techniques I use to set goals: an intellectual one and an emotional one. Neither of these methods is perfect, but at least they lead to some sort of goal, which I feel is better than having none.

The intellectual way of setting a goal involves looking at my life and my situation and determining the next logical move. For example, at one point I was a program manager at a tech company. My goal there was to become a lead. That's pretty simple. And while motivation is hard to come by with depression, having a goal -- even an obvious one -- lends at least a little bit of intellectual motivation to my day. Another intellectual goal might be getting married to the person you're dating. It might be getting your driver's license if you're 16, etc.

The caveat to the above method is that it can lead you down a path you don't actually want. When you don't carefully evaluate your goals and ensure they're really what you want, you can end up with goals that will make you even unhappier. So, consider all aspects of a goal before considering it.

The second method is an emotional one. This method involves looking at your life and seeing if there's anything you want anywhere in it. Even with severe depression and severe anhedonia, there is often something, somewhere that looks appealing. For example, does being able to afford a new car seem good? Does being able to take a vacation in a warm spot seem nice? Do you want a camera so you can take beautiful macro shots of your cat's whiskers? Think about absolutely anything in your life and see how you feel about it. No want is wrong or off-limits. There are no "shoulds" here. The key is finding even the tiniest spark in your mind. It's usually there, even when things are at their darkest (and if you truly can't find one, see method one). 

Once you find that tiny spark, map out the tiniest step forward to getting it. Make it very small and achievable. That is your goal.

Setting Goals Can Actually Fight Anhedonia and Depression

I can't promise you that meeting a goal will make you feel pleasure in spite of anhedonia -- it might not; but then again, it might. It might make you feel something good. It might make you feel something. And that might be exactly what you need to make a turn.

Goals are not the big, fancy Answer to Depression and Anhedonia. However, that doesn't mean that goals can't be part of the plan. I know it likely feels to everyone with depression and anhedonia that goals are impossible and useless, but they aren't. Take the leap and make one anyway -- any way you can.


  1. Davis, C., Anhedonia. MedicineNet, Accessed April 22, 2021.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, April 23). Setting Goals When You Have Anhedonia and Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, April 13 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

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