“Languishing” is 2021’s trending topic in mental health.
In the Spring of 2020, it was “grief.” The full implications of the global pandemic were unfolding, and measures like lockdown and social distancing began to see widespread adoption. The Harvard Business Review’s most viral article to date identified grief over the loss of business-as-usual as the defining mood of the time.
Grief was a useful mental model for people to understand better what they were feeling. Most adults know the feeling that follows a significant loss, but naming grief has become essential for navigating the myriad of emotions experienced in the face of the pandemic.
But what about languishing? What does that tell us about where we are now? And, as vaccines are distributed and restrictions are eased, how can we use the concept of languishing to understand our transition into an almost-post-COVID world better?
What is languishing?
As described by sociologist Cory Keyes, languishing is the opposite of flourishing. In the context of mental health and individual wellbeing, to flourish is to feel good, function well, and pursue an authentic existence.
That feeling when everything seems “right,” when you look forward to each coming day with pleasant anticipation and reflect on each day past with a sense of accomplishment, that’s flourishing.
But when you’re languishing, that forward momentum is gone. So languishing is the trudging through mud to flourishing’s energetic stroll.
Maybe you’ve begun half a dozen books but can finish none. Or your exercise routine has fallen by the wayside. Or you’re staying up late refreshing social media but can’t seem to find enough time during the day to make significant progress on work, hobbies, or projects.
To make a four-letter word of it, languishing is “blah.” Languishing only recently entered our lexicon, so many who are languishing now may have been feeling it for a long time without realizing it.
Languishing and depression
Languishing is not to be confused with depression. In contrast to the symptoms of a depressive episode, which can completely disrupt daily activities, languishing seems “okay.” Not great, but okay.
Think of it this way: When you’re languishing, you’re routinely hitting snooze on your alarm clock, even though you’re usually a punctual rise-and-shiner. When you’re depressed, you can’t get out of bed at all.
When you’re languishing, normally enjoyable activities—like going for a walk—are unappealing and don’t bring a spark of joy. When you’re depressed, those activities are so joyless and seem so pointless that it can be impossible to do them at all.
That doesn’t make languishing harmless, though. On the contrary, languishing may be a precursor to developing more serious mental health symptoms. And, no matter what, if you’re languishing, you are not flourishing.
How to break free from languishing
Kim Foster Yardley is a clinical psychologist based in Toronto. She’s worked with a number of high-performing individuals, like Olympic athletes, to help them overcome barriers to reaching their full potential and flourishing.
Yardley says one of the reasons people begin to languish is a lack of stress in their life.
Yup, you read that right. It’s possible that you’re not stressed enough.
"Stress can help you develop resilience and grit and keep you motivated and keep you energized,” says Yardley.
She isn’t alone in this sentiment. Research has shown that a small amount of stress in an individual’s life can help them flourish.
Yardley has four tips for anyone who needs help breaking free from languishing.
1. Set up small challenges for yourself
A personal challenge can create just the right amount of friction to help you get motivated, focus, and even enter a state of flow.
Whether it’s walking 10,000 steps in a day, trying out a creative hobby, or even testing out unfamiliar recipes–these are all ways to set achievable goals for yourself. And the stress you feel by taking them on will be nicely balanced out by the rush of success when you complete it.
“When you have goals that you're working towards,” says Yardley, “every time you reach a certain level on those goals, you get a dopamine rush—and that dopamine rush actually buffers you against the negative effects of stress.”
2. Eat better
Yardley understands the impact of nutrition on performance from working with professional athletes
“I worked with a golf player, and he was eating terribly,” she says. “How are you going to maintain your concentration for I-don’t-know-how-many rounds of golf if you’re eating sugar in between your different sessions?”
Yardley is quick to point out that she isn’t a nutritionist, but she always advises her clients to look at what they eat and how it impacts their performance on and off the field.
Healthy eating can improve your concentration and energy levels while completing day-to-day tasks—and that can help you step outside your comfort zone, take on new challenges, and break out of a cycle of languishing.
3. The tablecloth trick
Thanks to the pandemic, the way many of us do our jobs has changed. With the prevalence of working from home, it can become difficult to separate being at work and at home, on and off, focused and relaxed. That can create subtle or not-so-subtle mental fatigue that feeds that feeling of languishing.
Yardley has a simple trick for breaking up work and home life if the kitchen table has become your primary workstation.
“Our bodies and our brains are quite associative,” she says. “There are things you can do to cue your brain to let you know that you’re making a transition.
“For example, you could have a tablecloth that you put on your kitchen table. When you’re working, the tablecloth is there. Then you fold it up and put it away, and it’s home time. That signals to your brain that this is now a home space.”
4. Practice mindfulness
Flow is a state of mind in which you become totally immersed in a task or experience. It’s when you can focus on something “outside of yourself,” losing track of time and your surroundings and becoming completely absorbed in the present moment.
Going with the flow, so to speak, can help you break free from languishing. And while it’s impossible to enter a flow state through sheer willpower, setting up the right conditions is a good place to start.
“You kind of have to sit out all the foundational blocks and pieces, and then the flow state will come by itself,” Yardley says.
She says practicing mindfulness is one of the most effective ways to do that.
“Mindfulness, which is present moment awareness, being nonjudgmental of yourself and really focused in the present moment, is a mental skill where you practice attention,” Yardley says.
“And that's brilliant because you're learning that you're not your thoughts.”
Yardley says that a meditation practice of just ten minutes per day can help cultivate mindfulness and set the stage for more flow states. The key is making a point to meditate regularly.
Are you or someone you know languishing? You’re not alone. Connect with First Session on social media to share your experience with others.