The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus in 2021.
Initially, I didn’t recognize the symptoms we all shared. It was mentioned by friends that they were having difficulty concentrating. Colleagues reported that despite vaccines on the horizon, they weren’t excited about 2021. A family member stayed up late to watch “National Treasure” again, even though she knows it by heart. Instead of bouncing out of bed at 6 a.m., I played Words with Friends until 7.
The energy was still there, so it wasn’t burnout. We didn’t feel hopeless – it wasn’t depression. Just a sense of aimlessness and joylessness overtook us. That’s called languishing, it turns out.
The feeling of languishing is one of stagnation and emptiness. Seeing your life through a foggy windshield, you feel like you’re muddling through your days. The dominant emotion of 2021 might be this one.
In addition to treating and curing the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional effects of the pandemic. In the wake of last year’s intense fear and grief, it hit some of us unprepared.
During the early days of the pandemic, your brain’s threat detection system – the amygdala – likely was on high alert. You probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread as you learned that masks helped protect us, but package-scrubbing did not. The pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has transformed into a chronic state of despair.
Psychology views mental health as a continuum from depression to flourishing. In order to flourish, you must have a strong sense of meaning, mastery, and mattering to others. The valley of depression is a feeling of despair, dread, and worthlessness.
Mental health’s neglected middle child is languishing. There is a void between depression and flourishing – the absence of well-being. It’s not that you have symptoms of mental illness, but neither are you the picture of mental health. Your capacity isn’t fully utilized. As a result of languishing, your motivation will dull, your ability to focus will be disrupted, and your likelihood of cutting back on work will be tripled. Some researchers believe it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness than major depression.
The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes who noticed that many people who were not depressed were not thriving either. According to his research, the people most likely to suffer from major depression and anxiety disorders in the next decade aren’t those who exhibit those symptoms now. These are the people who are languishing right now. Post-traumatic stress disorder was three times more likely to be diagnosed among pandemic health care workers in Italy in the spring of 2020 than among their peers.
You might not notice the dulling of delight or the dwindling of drive when you’re languishing. You are indifferent to your indifference as you slip slowly into solitude. You won’t seek help or even do much to help yourself when you can’t see your own suffering.
It’s likely that you know someone who is languishing, even if you aren’t one yourself. You can help them if you understand it better.
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A name for what you’re feeling
The best way to manage emotions is to name them, according to psychologists. An article describing our collective discomfort as grief became the most viral post in the history of Harvard Business Review last spring during the acute anguish of the pandemic. It was not only the loss of loved ones that we mourned, but also the loss of normalcy. The word “grief” gave us a familiar vocabulary to describe what had been an unfamiliar experience. Most of us had dealt with loss before, even though we hadn’t faced a pandemic. We gained confidence in our ability to deal with present adversity through crystallizing lessons from our own past resilience.
Languishing still has a lot to learn about its causes and how to cure it, but naming it might be the first step. By defogging our vision, we can see what had been a blurrier experience in a clearer way. Languishing is common and shared. It could remind us that we aren’t alone.
It could also give us a response to “How are you? ”””
As an alternative to “Great!” or “Fine,” imagine saying, “Honestly, I’m languishing.” It would be a refreshing foil for toxic positivity, that quintessentially American pressure to remain upbeat.
When you add languishing to your vocabulary, you begin to notice it everywhere. When you feel let down by your short afternoon walk, it shows up. When you ask your kids how online school went, you can hear it in their voices. There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” where one of the characters says, “Meh.”
Daphne K. Lee tweeted last summer about “revenge bedtime procrastination.” She described it as staying up late at night to reclaim the freedom we’ve missed during the day. It seems that it’s not so much retaliation against a loss of control as it is an act of quiet defiance against languishing. In a perpetual pandemic, or in a bleak day, it’s a search for bliss, connection, or purpose.
An antidote to languishing
Is there anything we can do about it? It is possible to overcome languishing with a concept called “flow.” When you are absorbed in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, you lose all sense of time, place, and self. Well-being was best predicted by flow during the early days of the pandemic. By becoming more immersed in their projects, people avoided languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.
The early morning word game catapults me into flow. Netflix binge watching sometimes works too – it transports you into a story where you feel attached to the characters and concerned about their well-being.
It’s hard to find flow when you can’t focus. Finding new challenges, enjoying experiences, and meaningful work are all possible remedies to languishing. It was a problem long before the pandemic, when people checked email 74 times a day and switched tasks every 10 minutes. The past year has also been filled with interruptions from kids around the house, colleagues around the globe, and bosses around the clock. That’s all.
Engagement and excellence are threatened by fragmented attention. Among 100 people, only two or three will be able to drive and memorize information at the same time without their performance suffering. It’s true that computers are designed for parallel processing, but humans are better off processing information in a serial manner.
Give yourself some uninterrupted time
As a result, we need to set boundaries. Several years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday before noon.ore noon. 47 percent of engineers were more productive when they managed the boundary themselves. However, 65 percent of employees achieved above-average productivity when quiet time was made an official policy at the company. We now know that a sense of progress is the most important factor in daily joy and motivation.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays before noon, there’s nothing magical about the time. This simple idea teaches us to protect uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures. As a result, we are able to concentrate better because we are free from constant distractions. We can find solace in experiences that captivate our full attention.
Focus on a small goal
There was a great deal of loss caused by the pandemic. To overcome languishing, start with small victories, such as solving a mystery or playing a seven-letter word. It is clear that flow is the result of a just-manageable challenge: a challenge that challenges your skills and heightens your resolve. It means carving out time each day to work on an interesting project, a worthy goal, or a meaningful conversation that matters to you. All it takes is a small step to rediscover some of the energy and enthusiasm you’ve lost over the past few months.
Rather than languishing in our heads, we languish in our circumstances. It is impossible to heal a sick culture with personal bandages. Physical health challenges are still normalized, but mental health challenges are stigmatized. Post-pandemic, it’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being. Being “not depressed” doesn’t mean you’re not struggling. You don’t have to be fired up to be not burned out. We can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void by acknowledging the fact that so many of us are suffering.
The TED podcast WorkLife is hosted by Adam Grant, a Wharton organizational psychologist and author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.”