How are you feeling? Joyless? Fed up? Just about coping? Well, you’re not alone. After months of lockdown monotony and boredom, it’s unsurprising that many of us feel aimless and a little bit empty. In fact, in a recent article for The New York Times, psychologist Adam Grant figured out what this particular pandemic-related feeling is: languishing.
First coined by sociologist Corey Keyes in 2002, languishing is the state of emptiness and stagnation constituting “a life of quiet despair”. It is often defined in contrast to flourishing, which refers to higher levels of wellbeing, the experience of positive emotions, hope for the future and a sense that you’re growing as a person.
As Grant writes, languishing is not the same as having a mental illness, but rather, suggests you are showing few signs of mental ill-health, but have lower levels of wellbeing. So, much like a dull ache, if left unattended, it can develop into more serious problems. For example, research shows healthcare workers in Italy, who were languishing, were three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the wake of COVID-19.
With the future very much still uncertain, the idea of flourishing feels somewhat far off, but there are at least ways to deal with languishing. Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Christian Jarrett lets Vogue in on how to deal with the condition.
How would you define languishing?
“Languishing is partly defined by the lack of positive emotion—such as joy, pride and hope. We know that positive emotions are vital for our mental and physical health, so if we languish long-term, we’re likely to be at greater risk of future mental and physical health issues, such as depression and stress-related health conditions. It might make us less inclined to socialise and try new activities, all of which will further exacerbate the problem.”
Who does languishing typically impact?
“It can affect anyone, but if you’ve been feeling chronically socially isolated, you’ve experienced grief or lost your job and your plans have been continually hit, you’re more likely to be languishing. It’s important for our mental wellbeing to feel a degree of control over our lives. We also need human connection. Without that sense of control and loving contact, you’re bound to be at risk of languishing, even if you’ve managed to avoid becoming depressed.”
Why is languishing a particularly common emotional experience at the moment?
“It captures how many of us have been feeling about the impact of the pandemic—we might know that we’re not depressed, as such, yet we also have a sense that we’re not enjoying life and we’re struggling to feel optimistic about the future. It’s a neat term for describing that middle ground between having a diagnosable mental health problem and being mentally well and thriving.”
If we’re concerned that ourselves or loved ones may be languishing, what kind of traits should we look out for?
“If you realise it’s been a while since you laughed or experienced joy, you’re withdrawing from social contact and if you’re finding it hard to make plans for the future, you or a loved one may be languishing.
“Ask your friends or relatives if you seem to ‘be yourself’ lately. If you’ve gradually slipped into a languishing state, you might not notice it, but others might have. Look out for your friends and family too, how do they seem?”
If we are languishing, how can we help ourselves?
“Make the effort to reconnect with family and friends as much as possible [COVID-19 restrictions allowing]. Rediscover new ways to experience joy. Build routines into your lifestyle to reestablish feelings of control. Make plans for the future, even if you don’t feel like it—and build in contingencies, or a plan B, if necessary.
“Remind yourself of your values and look for any upsides to the ‘new normal’. Get creative—there might be ways for you to live a value-driven life even with the ongoing trials and restrictions of the pandemic. Be kind to yourself. And help others if you can—one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences in life is to be there for other people.”