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Languishing: What It Means and Why You Might Be Struggling with It

Published by: LifeWorks,

You may have heard about a phenomenon called languishing—an aimless, joyless state somewhere between depression and flourishing. A New York Times article in April 2021 helped start a trend of discussion about the subject, describing it as a “sense of stagnation and emptiness” that many people seemed to be experiencing as part of the “emotional long-haul” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But is languishing a real health condition? How might it appear in your life, or in the life of a loved one? And if it does, what can you do about it?

The spectrum of wellbeing

Psychologists think about mental health on a spectrum, from depression to flourishing.

When you’re flourishing you feel purposeful, fulfilled, happy, and thriving. It’s that state of emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing we all hope for.

Depression involves feeling hopeless, worthless, joyless, and without energy. Major depression is a painful and dangerous mental illness.

Languishing falls in between. It’s an absence of wellbeing, but without symptoms of mental illness. Put simply, languishing is “the absence of feeling good about your life,” says sociologist Corey Keyes, who coined the term.

Are you languishing?

A prolonged state of languishing can lead to depression, anxiety, and a higher risk of suicide attempts and premature death. Typical signs of languishing include:

  • Reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Foggy thinking.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Reduced enthusiasm about life in general.
  • Loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy.
  • Focusing on avoiding negative things rather than striving for positive ones.

Are you flourishing?

A quiz from Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program can help you judge whether you’re languishing or flourishing. Take the quiz here. It will help you gauge your level of wellbeing by looking at six aspects of your life:

  1. Happiness and life satisfaction.
  2. Mental and physical health.
  3. Meaning and purpose.
  4. Character and virtue.
  5. Close social relationships.
  6. Financial and material stability.

Researcher Professor Tyler J. VanderWeele says “there’s no specific score to determine if someone is definitely flourishing, the higher the score, the better.”

Put simply, you can add up your scores and assess how well you’re flourishing, or see what area of your life you can focus on improving.

Steps to take if you feel you’re languishing

Socialise. If you haven’t been seeing friends and family as often as usual, don’t let isolation become a habit. Make the effort to socialise, even just by going to small get-togethers or having a good conversation with a friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

Get outdoors, whether it’s a walk in the woods, a trip to the beach, an outdoor sport, or just a vigorous walk. It is likely that the widespread languishing that people are experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been caused mainly by spending too much time cooped up indoors.

Practise mindfulness. Put aside anxiety about the future and regrets about the past by bringing your attention to the present moment through meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises. Mindfulness has been shown to improve mood and overall satisfaction with life.

Explore new things and take on new challenges. Take music lessons or a dance class, learn a new language or skill, go on small excursions to new places. An active mind will lead to improved wellbeing.

Do good deeds. Performing acts of kindness have a powerful effect. Help a friend with a project, donate blood, volunteer.

Express gratitude. The flip side of doing good deeds is expressing gratitude for what others have done for you, or for the ways in which you’ve been fortunate. Studies show that reflecting on what we’re grateful for improves our quality of life.

The ascent from languishing to flourishing

The concept of languishing isn’t new, it’s just being talked about more lately. That’s partly because languishing is a newly popular word for it. The fact is, it’s always easier to solve a problem when you have a good word to describe it. (The French language already had one: ennui.)

Thinking about this poor state of mind as languishing, and using some of the techniques above, can make it easier to understand the condition, accept it as something that happens to a lot of people, talk about it with others, and above all, make it go away!

If you are having trouble coping, make sure that you reach out to a mental health professional for support, or contact your assistance programme.

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