Here we are, nearly to May 2021. People are getting vaccinated! Shops and restaurants are open with fewer restrictions! You could go back to working in the office! Baseball started! There will be Olympics – with no spectators!
Well, maybe more like “hooray?”
If you’ve been feeling sort of “meh” about things for a while now, you’re not alone. This feeling of aimlessness and lack of enthusiasm has a name – languishing. I’ve been languishing a bit. And apparently so are a lot of others. You, maybe?
In a recent piece in The New York Times, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania wrote “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”
Yes – that right there. That’s the feeling.
Languishing isn’t depression. According to experts, languishing falls on the continuum between depression and flourishing. You’re not depressed, but you’re not really fired up or really even content. It’s a sort of ambivalence about life, a nagging sense that things really aren’t like you’d like them to be. In an article for Health, Leela R. Magavi, M.D. described languishing as including feelings of stagnation, monotony, and emptiness. Rather than being really engaged, we just let things float. Things that would normally bring us pleasure seem sort of dull. Not bad, really, just not very fulfilling. Our usual creative outlets don’t satisfy or feel rather of pointless. I haven’t baked in days – and for me, that’s really saying something. Are you feeling the same about activities that once brought you a sense of happiness and fulfillment? It seems that, as humans, we do best when we feel we have a purpose. We flourish when we feel engaged in and satisfied by the activities and people with whom we engage.
When that feeling of engagement and purpose is missing, we can languish. And while languishing isn’t per se a mental illness, it can lead to depression and anxiety.
Although the pandemic is certainly one reason for the widespread feeling of languishing, this can happen any time. After I left my corporate job, I went through a period of intense happiness with being free from the confines of a “regular” job. But after a while, realized I was just drifting. Nothing was really wrong, but nothing was really right, either. I didn’t know my purpose. But I knew I needed one. I wanted to find my way back to feeling purposeful and valued and to feeling that I was making a difference for others.
So, I took up yoga, started practicing gratitude and decided to try more creative pursuits like making soap. Interestingly, those are exactly the kind of activities experts recommend to help us move from languishing toward flourishing.
Grant recommends seeking “flow.” Flow is finding a task or activity that engages you completely. It’s just challenging enough to require a lot of concentration but not so challenging you’re left frustrated. If you have ever taken a yoga class or have a yoga practice, you know the concept of flow – moving through the asanas with total focus on the moment. But flow comes in other ways, as well. Working through a new recipe, getting absorbed in a book or craft, finishing a puzzle. Grant recommends starting small and making the time to engage with the task daily. Those small wins help us find our way back to a sense of fulfillment.
Dr. Magavi recommends taking care of basic health needs first, like exercise, sleep and eating well. Then “give yourself what you need.” Choose an act of self-care and act on that choice. Your choice doesn’t have to be a grand, earth shattering gesture. For me, I’ve chosen to wear something other than stretchy pants seven days a week. A small thing, but I realized I was sinking into a state of never feeling purposeful, and that I was dressing as if I didn’t really have a purpose. No makeup, no earrings, and a uniform that said “whatever.” I’d get up and put on one of several pair of yoga pants and a t-shirt/sweater/hoodie. And then I’d do it again the next day. (Clean things, usually, but I confess there were a few days when I could have made better choices.) I missed the purpose of getting dressed in “going out of the house” clothes. So, I’ve made a wardrobe change. A small thing, but simply valuing myself enough to wear something pretty has made a big difference in how I feel about other things.
Another recommendation from Dr. Magavi: prioritization of gratitude in your pursuit of self-compassion and motivation. Hmm! Listing the things you are grateful for can make a huge impact on how you perceive your situation. Again, when I was lost and missing a sense of purpose, gratitude was my touchstone. Some days the list was pretty meager, but as time passed, the list got longer and longer. If you enjoy journaling or writing, then write down your list. Or simply take a few moments of quiet time to create the list in your mind. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, spend a few quiet moments running through the day. In the morning let your mind settle on people that may need a bit of positive energy for what they are facing. In the evening spend those quiet moments looking back on the day and finding the moments when grace arrived and express gratitude for those moments and the people or events that made them possible.
Whether or not you are feeling creative, finding a creative outlet is always positive. Paint, draw, make music, bake, whatever works for you. When my older son was having a languishing period, I suggested he bake cookies. Every day. Baking is absorbing, it requires some degree of planning and follow through, you see the finished product and if you can’t eat all the cookies, you can always find someone to share with. That sense of purpose and the feeling of accomplishment is key to breaking the languishing cycle.
And finally, let’s be honest with each other about how we’re feeling. Life is not an Instagram feed. Life is messy. Our feelings are messy. This sense of wanting to look forward but feeling ambivalent and held back is messy. And real. And it won’t go away until we acknowledge and claim the situation. We owe it to ourselves and each other to be open about our feelings, to treat ourselves and others with grace and compassion as we work back toward flourishing.
Because if we do these things, we can move from languishing to flourishing. And that seems like a move in the right direction.
Just having a word to attach to the feeling is an important first step. And knowing that this feeling is common – we are not alone. We’re in this together. Languishing for now but flourishing tomorrow.
Here are a few resources you might find helpful