Are you having trouble concentrating? Feel as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield? Not excited about anything? Wishing you could remain under the covers when the alarm goes off? This feeling is common, and it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.
Psychologist Adam Grant says that it’s happening to many people these days — including him. It’s not burnout — we still have energy. It’s not depression — we don’t feel hopeless. We just feel somewhat joyless and aimless. It’s languishing — a sense of stagnation and emptiness.
As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of the long-lasting COVID, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us with intense fear and grief.
In psychology, mental health is rated on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. At the peak of well-being we have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being — feeling despondent, drained and worthless.
Languishing is the oft overlooked middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing. You’re not functioning at full capacity. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and increases the chances that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
Grant says it appears to be more common than major depression and, in some ways, it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.
“Part of the danger is that when you’re languishing, you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude; you’re indifferent to your indifference. When you can’t see your own suffering, you don’t seek help or even do much to help yourself”, writes Grant.
You may not be languishing, and probably know people who are. Understanding it better can help you help them.
Being in “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. It comes when you get fully absorbed in a meaningful challenge or project — when your sense of time, place and self melts away.
“People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their pre-pandemic happiness,” he says.
“An early-morning word game catapults me into flow. A late-night Netflix binge sometimes does the trick too — it transports you into a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned for their welfare.”
Identifying small goals and finding uninterrupted time to make progress on them can also counter the sense of languishing.