What Is Languishing When It Comes to Mental Health?

What Is Languishing When It Comes to Mental Health?

What Is Languishing When It Comes to Mental Health?

Sarah-Louise Kelly, a freelance life writer for HuffPost UK, said that she hasn’t felt like herself since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic upended lives worldwide. Kelly said she feels less creative, less energetic, and less excited than she once was for life.

Kelly thought this was understandable, seeing that she survived a pandemic that shifted her life “dramatically in a short space of time.” But, nearly four years later, Kelly believes her life has not improved.

Kelly is not alone in feeling this way. While mRNA vaccines were developed to fight COVID-19 (which continues to circulate), the mental health effects of the pandemic only added to a feeling many people had even before the novel virus began.

It’s a feeling of being stuck in limbo, stagnating, and losing joy and excitement in things that once mattered. It’s also feeling indifferent and finding it difficult to maintain relationships that were once important with family and friends. For Kelly, this feeling has her wanting to stay in bed whenever possible.

“Now I’m just tired, a lot,” Kelly wrote in an article for HuffPost UK. “I do want to see people, but not for too long. The second I get home, I go to bed. I lie there, I watch tv, I scroll on my phone and I just kind of… exist.”

TikTok users call this “bed rotting,” where you go to bed, stay there, and “rot” until you feel suitably rested. Sociologists and mental health professionals, however, call this feeling, “languishing,” or being in a “blah” state of mind. It’s a malaise that doesn’t shift, according to Kelly.

The concept of “languishing” is not new. Mental health professionals point to Corey Keyes, now a professor emeritus of Sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, as being among the first to popularize the term “languishing.”

In his 2002 study, Keyes said adults who are “flourishing in life” are “filled with positive emotion” and functioning well psychologically and socially. On the other hand, adults who are languishing in life have a lack of meaning and purpose that can lead to “emptiness and stagnation,” according to Keyes’ study. Keyes’ new book Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down, published in February 2024, goes into further detail about the condition.

In December 2021, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, started a national dialogue about languishing after publishing an article in the New York Times.

“Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health,” Grant wrote in the most-read New York Times article of 2021. “It’s the void between depression and flourishing—the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity.”

Languishing appears to be more common than major depression, “and in some ways, it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness,” Grant wrote.

Languishing Is Not the Same as Depression

In a 2021 interview with WBUR, the NPR News Station in Boston, Keyes explained the difference between depression and languishing. Depression is a clinical disorder that causes disinterest in life and acute sadness, he said. Depression also has signs, such as sleeping too much or too little and having feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.

Languishing, on the other hand, is a lack of meaning, purpose, or belonging in life, which leads to emptiness, lack of emotion, and stagnation, Keyes said.

“Languishing is neither feeling good nor sad,” Keyes told WBUR. “It’s feeling really nothing.”

Keyes made the distinction that people who are depressed do not want to get out of bed, while people who are languishing get up and go through the motions of life.

“It’s almost like you put yourself on hold, and you’re waiting for something good to happen,” Keyes said. “Or you’re even trying to distract yourself by jumpstarting a good old battery that I call emotion, which is to feel something.”

In his research, Keyes found that languishing can place people at a high risk of developing depression and anxiety and elevated risks of suicide attempts and premature mortality.

Daniel Glazer, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of US Therapy Rooms, warns that languishing can be harmful in the long run.

“While occasional periods of drifting can be normal, extended languishing takes you further away from the vitality and renewal that comes with purposeful existence,” Glazer told HuffPost UK. “Over time, this sense of just drifting can erode one’s passion and sap the very joy of being.”

How To Stop Languishing and Get Back To Being Yourself

The good news is that people who experience languishing can find their “flow,” a state of being completely absorbed and focused on a challenging yet enjoyable activity or project.

Grant outlines three ways to escape that “meh” feeling and find your flow:

1. Mastery

Master something, it doesn’t have to be big, but something that gives you a sense of progress, momentum, and joy. Mastery can come from small, achievable wins every day.

2. Mindfulness

Focus your full attention on a single task, set boundaries, and avoid distractions. This type of focus requires dedicating uninterrupted blocks of time to allow yourself to get absorbed by whatever you’re giving your full attention to.

3. Mattering

Do something that matters, something that connects you to other people and that you know makes a difference to them.

Getting into your “flow” does not require doing major activities. It could be engaging in something enjoyable like cooking, gardening, running, crafts, learning how to play a musical instrument, or trying a new hobby. According to Glazer, staying connected with family and friends, getting enough sleep, nutrition, and exercise also helps you get into your flow.

Making simple changes, like introducing “variety to your scenery and social connections,” can “awaken fresh inspiration.”

“When you stir up your everyday routines, you invite in renewed energy, motivation, and direction,” Glazer told HuffPost UK. “Staying static leads to stagnation; changing course leads to islands of revitalization where you rediscover your passion and joie de vivre,” or enjoyment of life.

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