You wake up in the morning and you stare at the ceiling. After snoozing your alarm for what felt like the hundredth time, your motivation dips before your feet even touch the floor. No matter, you know you can push through, you’ve done it before. You plod to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and, staring blankly out the window, you fail to notice when the boiling water turns lukewarm. You boil it again. You thought this everyday drill could not get any more predictable, yet here we are.
When days blur into one stretch of time, it feels like there’s no way out of the low energy, lethargic state. The longer it lasts, the deeper we sink in it, but the absence of hopelessness leads us to believe depression is not what’s knocking on our door. But something is off. We’re not exactly happy but we are not totally unhappy either. We feel a bit enervated but not completely dispirited. Is it melancholia? Could it be burnout?
Call Me by My Name
Mental health is a spectrum. Nobody feels upbeat all the time and sadness can occasionally strike anyone for no apparent reason. That’s normal. Then how do we notice if and when our decreasing vitality becomes something to worry about?
In his article for The New York Times, Adam Grant, a psychologist and author, sheds light on what he calls “the middle child of mental health”, a state between depression (the cold absence of feeling) and flourishing (the peak of wellbeing) – languishing.
Symptoms include: stagnation, feelings of emptiness, aimlessness, absenteeism, not functioning at full capacity, fatigue, lack of clarity, dimmed emotions, and apathy. It’s as though we wrapped ourselves in a cocoon and tried to wait our life out. Nothing is vivid anymore, we exist, we are here, yet not really.
Danger in Disguise
Languishing lies somewhere in between depression and wellbeing. It’s not enjoyable, yet not terrifying enough, and for this reason it’s all the more confusing. Even though symptoms of depression are clinically significant and languishing shares a few of them in milder forms, the severity of it might go unnoticed. Needless to say, languishing is a serious threat because we may never see it coming.
As a psychiatric term it was first coined in 2002 by sociologist and psychologist Corey Keyes. In his paper, he characterizes languishing as the absence of mental health. His research showed that the risk of a major depressive episode was two times higher among languishing adults than in those moderately mentally healthy, and nearly six times greater compared to flourishing individuals.
Languishing is a serious risk factor for mental illness. When you feel indifferent to your own indifference, you neglect your suffering. That’s why it’s so important to have a name for our confusing state because now we can combat a tangible enemy.
Now Is the Time
In order to snap out of languishing we need a change of pace and an adjustment to our behavioral patterns and ways of thinking. And we need to act now. Waiting for tomorrow is like waiting for another today. There’s no better time to start reclaiming your joy than right this minute.
That said, avoid putting too much pressure on yourself. All you need is a manageable difficulty to create momentum. Think a jigsaw puzzle, a crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or solving one or two mathematical equations – baby steps to stimulate your brain a bit.
Then, if you’re ready, move on to bigger tasks. Declutter and reorganize your house. Dig up old photos of fun times with friends to elicit a positive outlook on reality based on evidence of something that already happened in your life and can therefore happen again. Increasing the complexity level of attitude-boosting activities gradually will prevent you from getting discouraged.
Choose one thing for yourself to accomplish every day and you’ll gain something to look forward to. For example, pick seven songs, one for each day of the week, set your alarm for a daily performance, and sing and dance as though you were the biggest star on Broadway. Motion moves emotion, this fun practice is guaranteed to elevate your mood.
Laying Healthy Foundations
Everything we do to improve our wellbeing deserves solid fundamentals, which means taking proper care of our health. The intelligence in our bodies is inextricably connected to the efficiency of our minds. Hence, we need to focus on our physical and mental wellbeing in equal measure. Cook from scratch, eat healthy, commit to a 10-minute workout every day, go on gratitude walks in nature to get fresh air and vitamin D, engage in self-care, and prioritize rest and sleep. A sound mind can only reside in a sound body.
Thank You, Next
We’ve now reached a more advanced level of our therapy – relying on the element of surprise. Languishing hates sudden changes, challenges, and novelties. Think of something you’ve never done before. Maybe gratitude and positive affirmations are a new concept for you? Make a list of everything and everyone who adds value to your life.
For example, a nudge forward would be to message a friend you haven’t spoken to in years. We know you are brave enough (you too, dear introverts). And while there’s no need to do anything you’d feel uncomfortable doing, you also want to push yourself a little. Use the Do Something Principle to boost your motivation. With each step forward you’ll feel more and more ease facing up to new challenges, until one day you’ll notice languishing is out of sight, out of mind.
Go With the Flow
In his article, Adam Grant points out that what seems to be a natural remedy to languishing is a state of flow. Getting in the zone and immersing yourself in a project to the point of losing any sense of the space-time continuum is a strategy that can bring you out of the woods for good.
Find something that has the power to absorb your attention completely and be present with it. Avoid multitasking, carve out uninterrupted time and focus on that one activity. Begin by searching your memory for any long-lost passions. Is there anything you used to enjoy doing before life happened? Create a mind map of anything that sparks joy in your heart and run with it.
If you need ideas, we’ve got your back. Research short story prompts and channel your inner Stephen King. Start a blog. Become a philosopher (you’ll be preoccupied for the rest of your life). Learn origami or how to knit, draw, or whittle. More? Offer proofreading services. Binge-watch interesting documentaries. Study how to design a notebook or a website. Start a YouTube channel. Meditate or practice yoga.
Lose yourself to find your sense of purpose.
It’s Ok Not To Be Ok
Maintaining a routine, finding new challenges to develop new skills, and immersing yourself in new passions and projects can pull you out of a rut. However, never hesitate to seek help. Ask your friends and family to regularly check in on you. If you feel like your symptoms of languishing are persistent and increasingly difficult, please contact a specialist. If you’re ok, but after reading this article you can identify somebody else suffering from languishing, know that a little bit of quality time might help them reconnect with their wellbeing. We are all in this together.
We can combat languishing by creating a state of flourishing in our lives. Head here to read about five steps that can help you grow into higher happiness.