What is languishing?
Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and author of Think Again, The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, described languishing as “stagnation”, where life feels aimless or joyless. It is, however, important to note that these aren’t necessarily symptoms of mental illness but more “the absence of well-being”.1
Languishing and the risk of depression
Sociologist Corey L.M. Keyes (who originally coined the term) notes that languishing is still a mental health risk. In a 2002 study, he found that someone languishing is twice as likely to develop depression as someone with moderate mental health.2
Celiwe Mngomezulu, Nurse Case Manager at Cigna, described languishing as “apathy, feeling unsettled and a lack of interest in things that typically bring you joy, which may predispose you to depression.” She added: “The latter feelings have been exacerbated by communities being forced to limit interaction with friends, family, and colleagues in the last two years or even stop participating in activities they have become accustomed to.”
A mental health clinician’s perspective
Languishing falls somewhere between flourishing and depression. You’re neither operating at your maximum potential nor feel so unhappy that you have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Instead, you’re ‘going through the motions’ of life, often with low energy, low motivation, and a sense of not being present. The increase in languishing that we have seen throughout the pandemic can be attributed to several factors, including social isolation, work burnout, and the changes in the way we perceive the passage of time, with days and weeks blending into one another.
It’s worth considering manageable and realistic ways to combat symptoms to prevent languishing from escalating into something more serious. One tool that is very effective in helping people feel more present, focused, and motivated in their day-to-day life is mindfulness.
Practising mindfulness in everyday life allows us to focus our attention on our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and perceptions in the present moment, without judgement. We can better disentangle ourselves from our emotions, feel more in control of our responses to the world around us, and start functioning more intentionally rather than on automatic pilot. In taking steps to be more present and engaged, we pave the way for renewed interest in our relationships, hobbies, and work.
Meditation doesn’t have to be complicated – simplicity and consistency are key! Why not try five simple mindfulness practices from Mindful to get started?
Eliza Redlus, M.A., clinical trainer, emphasised that help is available: “If you need extra support, it may be helpful to speak with a counsellor or therapist. Talking therapies can help you better understand what is contributing to your symptoms, identify healthy coping strategies, and support you to implement small changes daily that will lead to bigger changes over time.”
Additional steps forward
Even though languishing leaves you feeling unmotivated, making any progress is an excellent start. Whether a small task or a short-term goal, having something to work towards usually helps. In a New York Times article, Adam Grant introduced the concept of flow – “the antidote to languishing” – and ways to achieve it. Among his suggestions:
- Absorb yourself in the things you love – like watching movies, reading a novel, or playing sports. “A state of being in the zone, where time, place, and self melts away.”
- Keep busy – immerse yourself in tasks that make you happy.
- Mix up your daily routine by making time to do certain activities – like working out.
- Maintain relationships.
- Volunteer for community services.
- Learning new skills.
Adam Grant explains more about languishing and flow in this CBS News interview.
Know someone who’s languishing?
People who experience languishing don’t always seek help – possibly because they aren’t aware they’re experiencing it.
Some of the signs of languishing include:
- Declining invites to activities you usually enjoy.
- Deciding to stay at home alone instead of meeting friends you usually enjoy spending time with.
- Mood swings.
- Feeling unsettled without necessarily feeling highly anxious.
If you notice that a close friend or family member is showing signs of languishing, you can help by reaching out to them regularly. Ask them how they’re doing, and let them know you care. If you have experienced languishing, you may want to share how it impacted you so they know you can relate to what they’re going through.
This article was reviewed by Celiwe Mngomezulu, Nurse Case Manager, TH&N – Integrated Health Team, Cigna.
- Feelings of pandemic apathy may be defined as “languishing. CBS News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T2OL5wvQwTc. Viewed 13 January 2022.
- Preview: The mental health continuum: from languishing to flourishing in life. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3090197. Accessed 13 January 2022.
- Are you languishing? These are the signs and what to do. https://psychcentral.com/depression/what-is-languishing. Accessed 13 January 2022.