A few days ago a colleague told me that she doesn’t feel that excited about next summer, even with vaccines on the horizon. She doesn’t feel like making any plan. My boyfriend just told me he dully spent last night watching the Twitch stream of a game he knows by heart until 3 A.M. And lately, instead of doing my best, I have trouble staying focused and positive.
Feeling kind of meh may be the malaise of the time – but I couldn’t find a name for it. It’s not like we’re full-fledged depressed. Promise, purpose, and delight still brighten my days. But sometimes I do feel abulic, resorting to indifference rather than looking out for new things.
A recent New York Times article may have found the word I was looking for, describing what I and people around me were talking about. The name turns out to be “languishing.”
What is Languishing?
In the same article, Adam Grant calls languishing the neglected middle child of mental health: you’re not depressed, but you’re far from flourishing. It’s that vast, meh-colored desert of non-thriving. A sense of stagnation, but without feeling drained or lacking any sense of self-worth.
The Usual Sort of Not-Good
When I shared the article with a close friend of mine he bluntly told me that the word we were looking for was actually “life.” Welcome aboard – he added. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with languishing people that isn’t wrong with most of us. But languishing seems to be linked to major depression and anxiety problems. Research shows that healthcare workers who were languishing in the spring of 2020 were the ones most likely to develop PTSD. And while it’s definitely common – sociologist Corey Keyes suggests that as much as 12% of the population may be languishing – that also means that we might not be able to see our own suffering and take action.
So What Can I Do About It?
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Soul”, you should be familiar with flow states. Flow is that particular state of absorption where you lose the sense of time and place and your self melts away. For Joe, the protagonist of the movie, it comes from Jazz. Playing piano gets him “in the zone.” But flow states can be experienced doing all sorts of meaningful and challenging work.
Flow is a powerful antidote to languishing. The problem is that when you mention “flow” you’re facing this whole idea of something so grandiose that it’s just too elusive. Most of us aren’t skilled jazz musicians, artists, or athletes. Soul teaches you to dumb flow down. You shouldn’t be obsessed with the idea of finding your big talent. Take on a project, a puzzle, a modest goal – it will sharpen your focus and rekindle your enthusiasm for life.
Focus On Small Wins
The pandemic was a big loss. A palpable sense of collective grief has emerged. Now we’re facing the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. To overcome languishing, we need to start with small wins – think kaizen. What we need is to carve out some time for meaningful and achievable challenges that could help us find flow. A breezy, sparkling conversation, a small project, little ways to lessen the fog and bring in the sunshine. There are many ways to do that: reading novels can induce a flow state. Taking a few minutes to meditate works wonders as well. And by the way, by acknowledging that you may be languishing you’ve already taken the first win of your day.