Languishing: that in-between feeling where everything seems dull

Wake up, wash up, eat your breakfast, work from home. Don’t socialize, avoid crowds, wash your hands, wear your mask, rinse and repeat. Some variation of this routine helps us keep going through lockdowns and ever-changing social distancing rules. But it also wrecked the joy that the world of unpredictability and possibility normally offers.  

Hey, it could be worse – but it could be so, so much better. If you find yourself in the constant in-between state of “I’m fine”, you’re not the only one. The famous organizational psychologist Adam Grant reminds us that there’s actually a name for this feeling of “blah”: languishing. And according to him, it might be the most common emotion of 2021. Too drained to feel a spark of happiness from the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel? You may be languishing. 

Between depression and flourishing

The term languishing was coined by the sociologist Corey L. M. Keyes, and it refers to the absence of mental health. As Keyes explained for the National Post, it feels like something that is urgently missing in your soul. “Imagine feeling really hungry — but psychologically and emotionally. Like there’s this void, this emptiness in there (that) you cannot fill,” he described. 

It’s not depression: yet. But the Keyes’ 2002 study suggests that the situation can quickly get more severe for those who wallow in languishing. His research showed that the risk of a major depressive episode was two times more likely among languishing than moderately mentally healthy adults and nearly six times greater among languishing than flourishing adults. That has consequences such as troubles with emotional health, inability to get on with daily living, and impaired productivity at work. 

Are you languishing now? That’s a difficult question. As Adam Grant explains, this mental state often means “you’re indifferent to your indifference”, and you may not notice how dull things have become. 

Here’s why you should notice if you’re languishing

Noticing, acknowledging, and naming your feelings is, in general, are among those tricky skills that a therapist would try to teach you. It’s that important for well-being. Considering how easily languishing can turn into something more challenging, noticing might be the first step to take precautions. 

As Grant explains, “it could help to defog our vision, giving us a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience, and it could remind us that we aren’t alone.” And when you start observing it, you can try applying a solution, which could be the ever-elusive state of flow. Immerse yourself into a rewarding activity that requires your undivided attention or something that feels deeply meaningful to you. 

It may sound counterintuitive during these times. You might be working from home with yelling kids and beeping dishwashers demanding your assistance. But even little things count. Be it a fun DIY project, a new recipe, or a film you’ve always wanted to watch – as long as it sparks joy. As Grant points out, it should be just the right amount of challenging: you can do it, but you’ll also learn something in the process. 

The truth is that the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is so close we can almost touch it. But if we’re languishing, we’re adding kilometers to our journey towards “freedom”. Easier said than done, but it might be time to shake up that survival mode routine. 

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