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May 12, 2021

Feeling 'joyless and aimless?' That's called languishing—and there are ways to fight back.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jun. 6, 2022.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has driven up rates of burnout and depression, but many people are experiencing another, distinct feeling—one that makes you feel as if you're "looking at your life through a foggy windshield," Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at The Wharton School, writes for the New York Times.

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    It's called languishing, and Grant writes "it might be the dominant emotion of 2021."

    What is languishing?

    In psychology, mental health is often thought of on a scale from depression, the "valley of ill-being," to flourishing, the "peak of wellbeing," Grant writes. Languishing, "the neglected middle child of mental health," is what's between those two points: "the void between depression and flourishing—the absence of well-being."

    It's also an emotion many are experiencing now, after the initial "acute state of anguish" spurred by the start of the pandemic has dulled over time, Grant writes, devolving into "a chronic condition of languish."

    According to Grant, this condition of languishing makes you less motivated, makes it harder to focus, and triples the chances that you'll reduce how much work you're doing. It's also a condition that seems to be more common than major depression, he writes, and may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

    For instance, Corey Keyes—the sociologist who coined the term—discovered in his research that the people most likely to experience major depression or anxiety disorders within the next 10 years were those who were languishing in the present. And recent research from health care workers in Italy found that those languishing in early 2020 were three times as likely to later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder than their peers, Grant writes.

    But while widespread, the experience of languishing can be difficult to recognize, Grant writes, as you might not notice yourself "slipping slowly into solitude" and feel "indifferent to your indifference."

    As Grant explains, "When you can't see your own suffering, you don't seek help or even do much to help yourself." But if you do feel as if you are languishing, there are ways to combat the condition, he writes.

    4 ways to combat languishing

    1. Identify the feeling

    While we "still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to cure it … naming it might be a first step," he writes. Naming the experience could help us to "defog our vision," provide "a clearer window into what had been a blurry experience," and—perhaps most importantly—"remind us that we aren't alone."

    What does that look like in practice? Grant recommends, as a first step, answering the common question, "How are you?" honestly, perhaps as simply as stating in response, "Honestly, I'm languishing." According to Grant, "When you add languishing to your lexicon, you start to notice it all around you."

    2. Get into a state of flow

    At the start of the epidemic, those who were most likely to maintain their pre-epidemic optimism or mindfulness were those who could get into a state of "flow" by immersing themselves in projects, Grant writes. According to Grant, this state of "flow" refers to a "state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place, and self melts away."

    3. Give yourself a period of uninterrupted time

    To help find flow, Grant recommends setting boundaries—and, in particular, establishing set times when you can focus without interruption. According to Grant, having uninterrupted time to yourself can not only increase productivity but can drive joy and motivation.

    For instance, Grant cites a Fortune 500 company in India that tested this theory in 1999 by implementing a policy saying there would be no interruptions for their engineers on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays before noon. The researchers found that, when the boundary was set individually by the engineers, 47% had above-average productivity, but when the boundary was company policy, that number jumped to 65%.

    Grant writes that there's nothing special about the specific times chosen to protect. Rather, the study shows we should "treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard" because they "clea[r] out constant distractions and giv[e] us the freedom to focus."

    4. Focus on small wins

    Focusing on small triumphs can also help foster a state of flow and combat languishing, Grant writes. One of the best ways to get into a state of flow is to complete a "just-manageable difficulty," a challenge that tests your skills and bolsters your resolve.

    "That means carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you," Grant writes, "an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation."

    As we move forward into a post-epidemic world, "it's time to rethink our understanding of mental health and well-being," Grant writes. "By acknowledging that so many of us are languishing, we can start giving voice to quiet despair and lighting a path out of the void" (Grant, New York Times, 4/20).

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    The Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly increasing the need for behavioral health services. But there are significant gaps and barriers that stand in the way of people getting the help they need. Download our take to learn how health systems can prioritize addressing the immediate needs of both staff and patients, especially those with preexisting behavioral health needs or comorbid conditions.

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