How are you feeling these days? Has the pandemic left you feeling energetic, optimistic and refreshed? If so, you’re in a fortunate and very small minority. For most people, the events, pressures and changes over the past 18 months have led to a feeling that is gaining traction on social media and making its way into everyday language: languishing.
Languishing is not depression or hopelessness, nor is it cruising along happily with all systems running smoothly. Rather, it is the absence of any real sense of well-being. This can lead to feelings of lacking purpose and direction, as well as inertia and mild fatigue. People often report feeling empty, disconnected, detached, stagnant and indifferent. You can still get out of bed in the morning, but by lunchtime you just might be wondering why you bothered.
Despite the sudden popularity of the term, there’s nothing new about the word or the condition it describes. Languishing was first coined nearly 20 years ago by sociologist Corey Keyes. Much of the research on the topic over the past two decades highlights the need to first identify the feelings of languishing in order to move in a healthier, happier and more productive direction. In other words, being able to take a good hard look at yourself (or others) and say, “This behaviour [or lack of it] looks a lot like languishing,” is the first step out of it.
Languishing can impact career professionals in two major ways. First – and perhaps most significantly – it can put a dampener on your own levels of motivation and energy, it can lead you to lose focus on goals and it can deplete that sense of professional achievement, satisfaction or joy that you may have experienced more regularly before the pandemic hit.
It can also affect your colleagues and clients. Knowing that someone is experiencing a dip in their energy levels, or that their dreams and aspirations seem to be much more of an uphill struggle than before, might suggest that they are experiencing the effects of languishing. Just being able to talk about this openly is an important first step in exploring alternative ways to look at a situation, as well as the possibilities to move forward.
Learning that a client may be languishing doesn’t require that you suddenly train as a mental health professional, nor should you aspire to become their therapist. Rather, it offers a useful conversational framework about a set of feelings that millions of people around the world are experiencing right now, and thereby offers the comfort of saying “you’re not alone.”
“One of the best ways out of languishing is to grapple with a challenge.”
So, what suggestions or strategies might you explore for yourself or with your clients if languishing seems to have taken hold? One of the most popular ideas in the recent flurry of articles about languishing is taken from the field of positive psychology, and specifically Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work over many decades on the topic of flow. As he states in his 1990 classic book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” In other words, one of the best ways out of languishing is to grapple with a challenge.
Challenges are a bit like the bowls of porridge in the Goldilocks story – they have to be just right. If they’re too difficult, we become overwhelmed and soon give up. If they’re too easy, we become bored and experience no sense of achievement. But if they hit that sweet spot in the middle, they become a just-manageable difficulty that gives us purpose, direction and – over time – a sense of achievement at accomplishing all the tiny steps along the path.
Other recommendations from the field of positive psychology to overcome languishing include the benefits of regular physical exercise, including brisk walks – no gym membership required! Keeping track of internal moods, thoughts and feelings by using a journal can be a great asset for many people to move beyond languishing, while tapping into a network of friends, family and/or colleagues can provide the kind of meaningful connections and a sense of support needed to move forward.
There is no single quick fix to languishing, nor is it necessarily a “one-time deal” that you or your clients may experience, never to be repeated. Rather, it’s a fluid state that can come and go – and the key lies in identifying when it arises and then experimenting with different approaches to work through it. In contrast to the inertia of languishing, the ultimate healthy goal is to flourish – when we experience a vibrant sense of purpose, fulfilment and joy, both professionally and personally. Flourishing is within everyone’s reach, but languishing tends to make us lose sight of this fact. Sometimes, we may just need to be reminded that it is, indeed, possible.