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‘What’s the point?’ syndrome: how to spot the signs of apathy and anhedonia

Written by Marie-Claire Chappet

Should we worry about feeling apathetic to everything at the moment?

When news of the leaked US Supreme Court document about Roe v Wade broke, I was in bed, scrolling mindlessly through Met Gala looks. ‘Cara… body paint, nice. Oh they’re actually going to overturn abortion rights? Tessa Thompson… love the frills.’ That’s how it felt, shoved in between gilded trains and corsets. It was a news blast which announced a move to barbarically set women’s rights back decades… did I really just shrug it off in favour of watching Blake Lively’s dress turn from copper to turquoise?

Here’s the thing. It’s 2022, and the Roe v Wade news feels like a parade flotilla that has arrived late in the day, after several other catastrophes have trumpeted before it, throwing a confetti canon of awful in its path. In a highlights reel of the past six years we’ve had: #MeToo, Brexit, Trump, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the Capitol riots, Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa,Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis, #partygate, the protests against SARS in Nigeria, the escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Taliban retaking Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine and, oh yes, the ever-present threat of total global destruction from the climate crisis. In the face of such a deluge of horror, there comes a time when you just want to look at a nice dress, switch off, let your mind go blank and, well, give up.

Welcome to ‘What’s the point?’ syndrome: a collective exhaustion, a cross-generational yawning nihilism in the face of what feels like an insurmountable barrage of bad news. I’m not the only one feeling it. My friends are, of course, furious at the Roe v Wade news, just as we were furious about Sabina Nessa and Ukraine and Boris. But what has matched this initial rage is a sense of defeatism. The wars keep coming, the men in power stay in power, the planet keeps heating up, LGBTQ+ rights are persistently eroded. Perhaps we only have so much care to exude before we expire, before it all feels pointless.

Yet, instead of just avoiding the 24-hour traumatic news cycle, some people are affixing this nihilism to their world view entirely; there is a sense of not caring about our futures, careers, or anything in general. This mindset is becoming increasingly prevalent among younger generations. A 2021 survey found that half of millennials and Gen Z in the UK feel anxious or stressed all or most of the time, while a separate investigation at UCL found that depression among teenagers has doubled in a decade, citing the overwhelm of social media content as a factor.

Now, this nihilism has been practically adopted as an aesthetic. Nothing captures this mood quite like the cult Instagram account @casual.nihilism, which features endless posts with phrases like: “I’m gonna go nap. I’m not tired. I just don’t want to be awake.”

“Where we once justified our daily anxieties by doom scrolling through bad news, we now post memes that epitomise our sense of mass existentialism, taking part in a sort of performative negativity that, as a result, protects us against reality,” says Holly Friend, deputy foresight editor at futures consultancy, The Future Laboratory. 

“Take the boom in reality shows, the rise of the ‘dissociative pout’ or the fact young people are smoking again as examples of ways we’re detaching ourselves from the emotional burdens of modern society.” 

Friend sees this general mood manifest itself in fashion, too. “Just look at the return of indie sleaze,” she says. “This gauche aesthetic is a symptom of our cultural transition from taste to tastelessness. Where pre-pandemic style was defined by the careful curation of cool, young people are now pushing back against refinement by reclaiming the carelessness that comes with being chaotic, tacky and anarchic.”

For millennials, much of this began far earlier than the pandemic. With the credit crisis of 2008, we became a generation graduating into a recession and one of the worst job markets and economies in recent times. Whereas our parents’ generation had something to save for, a future that felt achievable with time and graft, we were overwhelmed with a sense of ‘what’s the point?’ At last count, a home costs millennials 14 times more than baby boomers – and in a climate of extreme wage stagnation. In the midst of all this, it’s little wonder that thebirth rate has plummeted. Four in ten young people fear having children because of the climate crisis while the rest simply can’t afford it, in a country where childcare costs over £7,000 a year, for just a part-time nursery place. It’s little wonder that we have turned to frivolous spending on a micro level (termed ‘treat brain’) we can afford. So, yes, that means our bottomless brunches and trips to Ibiza and online shopping binges. Let us blow what we can, on what we can.

Dr Roberta Babb, registered clinical psychologist, believes that ‘What’s the point?’ syndrome is a natural reaction to our political and social landscape. “If you think about Brexit, coronavirus, the cost of living increase, there is a real sense of things being done to people, so they feel really powerless,” she says. “So, if you don’t have any agency, what’s the point of even putting what limited energy you have into something that’s probably not going to make a difference?

“I see a lot of clients coming to me feeling stuck like this,” Babb discloses. “They feel like they can’t change the situation and there seems to be this huge sense of free-floating anxiety that’s full of foreboding. But there’s no definable trigger. Because actually, it’s because they’re really connected and attuned to the trauma and anxiety that’s going on at a global scale.”

Award-winning psychologist Natasha Tiwari views this as widespread burnout as a result of the 24-hour news cycle, propelled on social media on a scale no generation before has ever experienced. “The truth is, our human nervous systems have not evolved to have this much access to information which causes stress,” she explains. “Nor have we evolved to live in long-term chaos and uncertainty, and this state of being hyper-informed, under intense pressure and emotionally overwhelmed is leaving us in chronic burnout.” 

She details how fraying this much information is on our psyches. Our news consumption pre-social media would be intermittent – typically restricted to morning and evening news shows or one read of the daily paper. Now, we are treating the news like an Instagram grid, refreshing and scrolling as though we are after that dopamine hit, but getting instead a drip feed of bad news that feels inescapably immersive.

Tiwari has seen this with her own clients and believes it can develop into one of two conditions: anhedonia or apathy. “Anhedonia is the term we use to describe a mental state of being unable to feel pleasure, and while this is different to depression, I do believe it can be a contributing cause,” she explains. “Apathy, rather, is marked by a feeling of complete indifference and is actually quite normal to experience on occasion, but when it is sustained over a period of time, it will impact one’s ability to function well, live optimally, and can also be a cause and symptom of a depressive state.” Both Tiwari and Babb stress that, should these feelings tip into a depressive state, where apathy becomes an oppressive force that makes everyday tasks difficult, you should seek professional therapeutic help.

Interestingly, protecting our mental health from the trauma of this 24/7 stream of bad news does involve us dipping our toe into apathy. Life coach Lucy Sheridan sees detachment as a tool of self-preservation. “We’re tired in ways that we could never have prepared for, and we naturally need to switch off to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed,” she says. “It is important, however, to recognise when this becomes full-on apathy and talk to others about how you’re feeling and how you want to move forward. A lot of my clients want to, it’s just a case of knowing where to start when everything feels so overwhelming.”

Of course, having the liberty to scroll past a war zone instead of living in one is an extreme form of privilege. I discuss with Dr Babb how one of the contributing factors to this collective despondency is that you feel too guilty to look away. “The fact is, everyone is starting to feel vulnerable – even people with different layers of privilege,” she says. “It’s what we do with [privilege] that matters, and that can be as small as donating to a cause, signing a petition, reading a book and engaging with the issue. It can also mean taking a break, ​​because mindlessly consuming traumatic news isn’t necessarily helpful. We have to be thinking about how and why we’re consuming it and what we’re doing with that knowledge.”

Findings ways to reconnect

Sheridan recommends deciding on your own PPP: “These are your ‘prized personal pillars’ – another way of saying the personal values you hold dear and the way you want to live your life,” she says. “Choosing these reconnects us to this present moment and give us a really solid place to go forward from and is also important when it comes to re-engaging with the world around us. It is about recognising that we can’t fix everything ourselves or immediately. We want to be pursuing progress, not perfection, so ease the pressure.”

Dr Babb agrees, and recommends a bitesize approach to engaging with life in a more positive way. “It’s about finding ways to take your power back in a world that makes you feel powerless,” she says, adding that you may not be able to single-handedly fix climate change but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference on a smaller scale. “That could be working out how to engage with just one social issue, not all of them, moderating how much you watch on social media, or something like figuring out a price plan for your energy bills. Just small choices.”When it comes to activism in a world of so much atrocity, she says that apathy is its “kryptonite… so take a break and don’t feel guilty about that. You can’t be an ally if you’re suffering from burnout.”

It’s not surprising in the least that world events and societal and economic frameworks which seem rigged against us have caused a desire to give up. Yet there are signs that this ‘giving up’ may be a form of power in its own right. If we learn to manage our exhaustion and protect our mental health, we are still left with a feeling of disquiet with the way the world is run. 

“It’s prompting people to talk more about, you know, who’s in power and why we are finding ourselves in the situation and what can change,” says Sheridan. And she’s right, for one of the most significant manifestations of a ‘What’s the point?’ mindset making a statement for change is The Great Resignation – a global movement which, in the UK alone, saw the number of people quitting jobs at its highest rate since 2009. Though it feels like literally giving up, the en masse nature of this move away from sterile, impersonal workplaces with a culture of presenteeism and rigid policies is a collective middle finger to the old way of working, which may spell a fascinating revolution. And one that may actually make us feel less helpless and more engaged.

So, while I reserve the right to lose myself in Met Gala dresses to forget the world’s ills, I also know I shouldn’t give up on caring altogether. I can drag myself back when I need to and can make whatever small moves I can to ensure that mine, and others’, lives are a little better. I can also try as much as possible to have faith in a better future. As Dr Babb reassures me, “Even in the aftermath of a forest fire, you’ll find one green shoot finding its way.” Maybe that’s the point. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health issues, you can find more information on Mind’s website.

Image: Getty

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