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Languishing: The blind spot of our mental health

‘Is the absence of mental illness reflective of genuine mental health?’ Corey Keyes would argue no. In 2001, he published an article entitled The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life. 

It illuminated an emotion that we’ve perhaps all encountered at some point in our lives. When someone asks, ‘how are you today?’ have you ever responded, or felt like responding, ‘meh’ or ‘blah’? You feel stagnant, aimlessly wandering throughout the day without any real sense of aliveness. This is languishing.

The embers of our lifeforce

If you’re languishing, you’re not necessarily depressed (although they can co-exist) but you’re definitely not flourishing either. Instead, you exist in the space between, consumed by apathy. Your creative spark has been reduced to a flicker, your ability to feel emotion has become buried under the mundanity of daily life, and there is an undercurrent of disconnection. 

But why is this a problem exactly? As Adam Grant writes in the New York Times, ‘…you might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive. You don’t catch yourself slipping slowly into solitude.’ This is perhaps why languishing is regarded as ‘the neglected middle child of mental health.’

As a result, you’re not likely to seek help, and the longer it continues, there is a greater risk of experiencing major depression or anxiety. Keyes found that languishing not only impairs mental health to a similar degree as depression, but it was highly prevalent among the sample he examined. 

The roots of our stagnation

What’s the root of this emotion that prevents us from achieving good mental health? We can look to the pandemic for answers, as languishing skyrocketed during this period. We could no longer experience the things that once brought us joy, and suddenly robbed of opportunities to meet our goals (big or small), we were plunged into a life of uncertainty with no idea of when normality may return.

The stress and change in routine triggered a wave of languishing worldwide. It mirrors another term called ‘lifestyle fatigue’ coined by Sean Grover, which evolves when the novel experiences of early life wane only to be replaced by a perpetual dullness in adulthood. 

According to Dr. Elaina DellaCava, this feeling can be fuelled by emotional exhaustion, depression, and an excessive experience of fight-or-flight mode. With less structure and more isolation due to hybrid working, it’s clear the aftermath of the pandemic rages on in the form of languishing and lifestyle fatigue. 

A potion of small joys 

How might people address the feeling we describe here? We suggest the following:

  1. Name: As we outlined in a previous blog, naming the emotion is the first step because language allows us to identify and process emotions previously hidden from conscious view. 

A nuanced emotional vocabulary not only offers a vessel for expression which can improve interpersonal communication, but it makes us more open-minded about the tapestry of human feelings and, crucially, better equips us with the tools to address our own mental health challenges. 

  1. Create: In another post, we touched on the role of flow state in wellbeing, which is also a possible solution to languishing because it helps reignite our relationship with creativity. According to one study, getting lost in an activity that is a perfect balance of challenge and skill generates a deep sense of pleasure and control which are absent in states of languishing.

If you can’t set aside free time in the evening for this, try setting aside 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours a week in the morning to focus on a work task. As Grant observes, ‘We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.’ 

  1. Change: Another potential antidote is changing your routine in some small way to reintroduce novelty. Can you visit a different supermarket for your shopping? Try one new food a week or a different coffee shop? 

Or start carving out just 2 minutes to do something that brings you joy whether that’s watching a video of your favourite comedian or stepping outside briefly to see what the clouds look like today. Creating meaningful rituals is another way of anchoring us and restoring mental health during groundless periods. 

Date: 10th January 2023.

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