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The Curse of Apathy: Sources and Solutions by Leon F Seltzer Ph.D.

The Curse of Apathy: Sources and Solutions
Beware of apathy—it can be your worst enemy.

Posted Apr 27, 2016

by Leon F Seltzer Ph.D.


What, exactly, is apathy? In a sense, it’s something like falling in love. You can describe it all you want, but until you’ve experienced it, you can only guess at what it feels like. Paradoxically, what makes the feeling of apathy unique is that it’s essentially the feeling of not feeling. It’s something that at some point in your existence you’ve encountered. Whenever you feel that something vital is missing from your life, yet lack the  drive to pursue it, you’re afflicted with this curiously “emotionless” emotion.

Through much psychological research, it’s now accepted science that you must experience feelings about something if you’re to take personally meaningful action on it. And without any compelling emotion to direct your behavior—and apathy literally means “without feeling”—you just aren’t sufficiently stimulated to do much of anything.

True, apathy is a feeling. But it’s also an attitude. And sadly, that attitude is one of indifference . . . unconcern . . . unresponsiveness . . . detachment . . . and dispassion. Such an attitude saps you of so much energy that you feel lethargic, listless, and enervated—almost too “paralyzed” to act—and certainly without the will to do so. Which is why apathetic individuals are easily identified by their very passivity. Their interest in confronting life’s challenges is seriously compromised. They just don’t care enough. And frankly, they don’t care that they don’t care.

Where Apathy Comes From—and What It Looks Like in (In)action

It’s been noted (J. Ishizaki & M. Mimura, 2011) that apathy can occur in such disorders as “schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, Huntington’s disease, and dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.” In less scholarly fashion, many other writers have linked its onset, and duration, to problematic lifestyles characterized by sleep deprivation (and general fatigue), poor diet, and lack of exercise; or to organic defects, such as a malfunctioning thyroid gland or limbic system, As regards more psychiatric diagnoses, it’s also been associated with dysthymia, major depression, and bipolar disorder—as well as with the heavy use of certain drugs (from pain medications, to marijuana, to heroin).

But independent of etiology, the ultimate consequence of all these conditions—and others, too—are pretty much the same. That is, for all who suffer from apathy, what’s lost is the fundamental hope that personal happiness or fulfillment is possible. Either they’ve ceased to believe in the intrinsic value of the goals they’d earlier set for themselves, or they’ve lost faith in their ability to achieve these goals. So they can’t think of anything worth striving for. As a result the raw mental, physical, or emotional energy for accomplishing what in the past may have been valued disappears. Although feelings of depression frequently go hand-in-hand with apathy (and at times are almost indistinguishable from it), it should be noted that apathy can sometimes occur by itself.


Here are a few things that might lead to apathy:

  • Have you been having negative thoughts about yourself, or your prospects? Are you afraid to act for fear that you might fail? be rejected? confirm—once and for all—that you’re inferior, incompetent, inadequate, worthless? Or is it possible that not that long ago you actually did experience some failure or rejection—and haven’t been able to rebound from it?
  • Did something recently happen to you, or someone you deeply care about, that has left you not simply disappointed but demoralized, pessimistic—or downright hopeless? For that matter, have any local, or perhaps global, events left you feeling cynical, as though whatever you might attempt to do to change things couldn’t possibly make the slightest difference?
  • Have you become so bored, or worn down, by tedious daily routines that it seems there’s nothing to look forward to? Is there something inside you that’s simply given up on creating a more joyful, gratifying future for yourself? Instead of “seizing the day” (or “taking the bull by the horns”), have you—fatalistically— become resigned to a lifetime of tedium?

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