Need to know
Do you feel blah? Not exactly suffering, but lacking interest and excitement? Do your days feel like a monotonous toil, akin to toothbrushing, but stretched over the entire day: same routines, same tiny annoyances? Are you unable to find motivation to do the activities that used to give you joy? If this describes your experience, then you may be going through a period of languishing.
People often think of mood as a battle between wellbeing and illbeing: either you feel good or bad. But if you don’t feel much of either, that’s the territory of languishing. It’s ‘the neglected middle child of mental health’, as Adam Grant put it in The New York Times in 2021. Whereas depression is active illbeing – feeling sad, powerless and drained – and flourishing is active wellbeing – feeling engaged, excited and empowered – languishing sits in between. It is a sense of stagnation where nothing is too wrong or painful but everything feels a bit boring and uninteresting. The world is grey.
A brief taxonomy of wellbeing states
To further understand languishing, it helps to recognise that an absence of illbeing does not mean the presence of wellbeing. Psychological research has shown that positive and negative feelings are partly independent processes – even neurologically and biologically. In moments of flourishing, you are high on excitement and joy, and low on negative feelings. In moments of suffering, there is not much joy but only sadness in our life. But there are also bittersweet moments where we feel strong positive and negative emotions simultaneously – such as feeling excited about one’s new job while feeling sad about leaving the old work community. Then there is languishing – moments when we don’t feel much of either. Languishing is thus about feeling low – but low on both positive and negative feelings.
The consequences of languishing
The bad news about languishing is that the lack of enthusiasm often translates into less effort. For instance, in one US study, people who were languishing were three times more likely to have made drastic cutbacks to their commitments at work compared with those who had moderate levels of positive wellbeing. Languishing is also a risk factor for mental illness – long periods of languishing more than double the risk of developing major depression or anxiety disorders in the future. For example, a study of healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy showed that those languishing in the spring of 2020 were three times more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder than those with moderate mental health. The blah of indifference can thus slowly turn into the boo of suffering.
The good news is that languishing sits in the middle – it is not yet active suffering and illbeing. Whereas digging out of a major depressive episode might require therapy, medicine and patience, languishing can be more easily conquered – often some changes in your daily routines are enough, allowing you to emerge from languishing relatively easily and unscathed.
So, if you recognise yourself in these descriptions of languishing, how can you overcome it? Having studied meaningfulness and happiness for more than a decade, with a special focus on the key psychological factors fostering wellbeing and reducing illbeing, I have identified a few key strategies that you can use to build positive mental health and flourishing into your life – and will now share these with you.
What to do
For languishing – or for any other human mental health issue for that matter – there is no panacea, no silver bullet that works for everyone. Each of us lives a unique life, with a special mix of personal history, inherited traits, acquired habits and patterns of thinking. I don’t know your life, so I don’t know the perfect way to overcome your specific experience of languishing. What I can share with you is a series of tried-and-true methods that work for many.
These methods build on ancient wisdom traditions and modern psychological research that have aimed to identify the most effective interventions to improve mental health. They’re in tune with the fact that our brains are wired to connect issues into meaningful patterns. Even meaning in life comes from connection – that’s what my enquiries into the topic of meaning have taught me over the past decade. Similarly, the strategies to overcome languishing can be grouped around four different types of connection, each helping to elevate your mood: to overcome languishing, you can try connecting with the situation, connecting with others, connecting with yourself, or connecting with a desired future. Try them all out to find what helps you best!
Connect with the situation
Name and accept the feeling
Healing starts with recognition. Acknowledging and managing one’s emotions starts with giving them a name. In spring 2020, during the early phase of the pandemic, a Harvard Business Review article on ‘grief’ went viral – it gave a familiar vocabulary for the loss of social contacts and of normality that people were experiencing. One year later, the early panic had tailed off, but life was still constrained in many ways. It was the moment for a new article giving a name for the collective feeling to go viral, this time Grant’s abovementioned New York Times piece that named this feeling as languishing. Again, giving a name to something many were experiencing – in this case, a lack of positive feelings – helped people to get to grips with their situation.
In my children’s kindergarten, I’ve been impressed by how the teachers help children recognise their emotions. When hungry, many kids are grumpy and irritated, without realising that their experience of the world is coloured by their hunger. They think the world is irritating, while in reality they look at the world through irritation. Here teaching the child to name the feeling can help them master their irritation by learning to see how hunger causes it. Unfortunately, many adults lack this education, thus being as blindly steered by their emotions as the four-year-old.
So, try to make a habit of naming and accepting your feelings. Give it a go. Concentrate on your feeling right now – how exactly does it feel when you focus on it? Give that feeling a name and say hi to it.
By acknowledging what you are currently feeling, and giving it a name, you are able to understand your situation better – and, also, to gain a certain reflective distance that helps you overcome it.
Next, accept whatever you are feeling. Suppressing or denying emotions does not work – by fighting against a certain feeling, you are giving it increased attention. And, in our mental life, what we focus on tends to grow.
Think of your feelings as clouds. A cloud floats in unavoidably, covers the sun and makes everything look darker – but eventually, by the sheer force of movement, it also floats away, letting the sun shine again. Observe what you are feeling, give it a name, acknowledge that it now colours your experience – and then let that feeling float, until it wanes.
Accept your situation
It is also a good idea to accept your current situation. Whatever it is – it is what it is, whether or not you accept it.
In 165 CE, during Marcus Aurelius’ reign as the emperor of Rome, the Antonine Plague broke out, devastating the population of the Roman Empire, causing up to 2,000 deaths a day in the city, at its worst. Aurelius was the emperor so he ought to have protected his citizens. But, without the aid of modern medical knowledge, he was helpless. He sought consolation in Stoicism, writing meditations for himself: ‘To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.’
At the heart of Stoicism is the realisation that external things as such are not the problem. ‘It’s your assessment of them,’ as Aurelius put it. Most of what happens around us are events that we can’t control or alter. Fighting them or raging against them does nothing to change them – but your futile resistance does drag you down towards languishing and suffering. So you better switch to acceptance. When things go against you, and you can’t alter what is happening, ‘accept it gladly and stop fighting it’, Aurelius wrote. While you can’t control external events, you have a degree of control over your reaction to them.
Acceptance is the only rational response to things you cannot change. But it is by no means an easy feat. Thus, Stoicism was first and foremost a practice, a way of living, rather than just a theoretical doctrine. Stoics had a number of techniques and daily habits they used to become better at the art of accepting. One technique used by Aurelius was to break whatever is bugging him into such small parts as to make them trivial. He gives the example of a song that moves you. If you break it down into individual notes and focus on each of them individually, the emotional overtones disappear. He recommends this same strategy to whatever is distressing you: ‘Look at the individual parts and move from analysis to indifference. Apply this to life as a whole.’
So, tap into your inner Stoic and learn to accept that which you cannot change: your past and current situation. This is not passive submission – you still should identify what you can influence and focus your energy on improving that. But for the parts of reality that you can’t alter, struggling does not help. It is what it is, so you’d better learn to practise the art of accepting.
Be present in whatever you are doing
One symptom of languishing is that the whole day feels like one long stretch without proper ebbs and flows. Instead of properly resting, many of us mindlessly scan our smartphones. Instead of properly working, we mindlessly scan our smartphones. This lumps different parts of the day into one indistinguishable mass. This was especially the case during the pandemic when people worked and did basically everything from home. Multitasking through your life without concentrating on whatever is happening right now dulls your feelings and is thus a recipe for languishing.
Aside from putting your smartphone away more of the time, another simple cure to languishing is to build more rhythm and dynamic into your days. When you rest – rest. When you work – work. When you play with your kids, be present in that moment. Through building more variety into your days and being present in whatever you are doing, you allow yourself to be exposed to the emotions arising in the situation – both positive and negative – increasing the zest of your everyday existence.
Connect with others
Practise small acts of kindness
When we feel down, we easily become more focused on ourselves. Paradoxically, one of the best ways to increase your own happiness is to make someone else happy.
If a group of people are given $5 to make themselves happy, and another group of people are given $5 to make someone else happy, which group is happier afterwards? Surprisingly enough, several experiments conducted by Lara Aknin, Elizabeth Dunn and their colleagues in many countries across the world have demonstrated that the group spending their money on others is happier than the group using that same money on themselves.
In one of my own studies, I asked students to play a simple synonym game for 20 minutes. Half just played the game, the other half were told that, for every correct answer, a small sum of money would be donated to the UN Food Programme. Afterwards, the latter group was happier and experienced the gameplay as significantly more meaningful.
Starting today, pay attention to opportunities for small acts of kindness – mundane everyday acts that help someone in a difficult situation or delight them. Doing so is likely to give you a boost in meaningfulness and happiness. You can focus on bigger things such as making a positive difference through your career, through volunteering or taking care of your loved ones. But even small acts of kindness – tiny good deeds done as part of your everyday routines, such as saying a nice word to the cashier or bringing a cup of coffee to your colleague – can help you to reconnect with those positive feelings that helping others gives rise to.
Make contact with a loved one – or a stranger
As social animals, we humans find happiness, love and meaningfulness from the company of others and feeling a connection with them. While most of us know this, we tend to fill our calendars with so many duties and activities that we come to neglect the joys of unhurried time together with someone dear to us – with modern smartphone addiction adding a constant source of disconnectedness even to those moments when we are in the same space.
So, put your phone away, and grab a coffee with a friend, make time in your calendar for your family, or host a get-together – human connection is a proven way to lift your mood.
And while connecting with those we know comes relatively naturally, people tend to overlook the benefits and positive feelings that ensue when they connect with a stranger. Juliana Schroeder and her colleagues asked train commuters in Chicago, and later in (supposedly more reserved) London to strike up a conversation with a stranger during their trip. In both cases, those brave enough to talk with strangers reported a more pleasant trip. So connect with strangers! Book travel alone, go on a blind date, attend a hobby group – new connections boost your sense of engagement with life. The excitement of making new friends and connections is a strong antidote to languishing.
Connect with yourself
Stop and think – what makes you tick?
It’s easy to be seduced into living your life according to other people’s standards. Doing what is expected of you, making choices that make your parents proud, pursuing things that get you admiration from others. The problem: you come to live somebody else’s dream, not your own. This could be a major source of languishing – everything is seemingly adequate in your life, but you feel somehow alienated from it. You do the motions and fulfil the expectations but without any joy or excitement.
What you need to do is to start living your own life, making your own choices, as nobody else will do that for you. To do that, you need to know who you are – what are the activities you yourself find interesting and worth doing? One simple exercise (developed by my colleague Lauri Järvilehto) is to write down all the activities you actually enjoy doing. From cooking to gardening, from reading to white-water rafting – whatever makes you tick. List as many activities as possible and then rate each item based on whether you are (1) already able to do it as much as you would wish in your life, (2) able to do it sometimes, but not as much as you would want, or (3) not able to do it at all. Looking at that list will give you more insight into what makes you excited and how much you are currently able to do these things. The next step is to figure out what you could change to be able to do more of the activities that you actually love doing and that could bring more joy to your life.
Challenge yourself to do something you’ve never done before
Besides reflecting on your life, interests and values, one of the best ways to learn to know yourself is through action. Try something new – a new hobby, a new place to hang out, a new way to commute to work – something that pushes you to confront yourself in a situation you haven’t been in before.
In my 20s, I challenged myself to join social gatherings and parties with very different people – Right-leaning economy students in suits one night, a group of hippies playing guitar in a park the next evening. Even my choice of clothes was based on the idea that I could end up in either place and nobody would think that I did not fit in. Instead of hanging out only with groups where I felt comfortable and knew how to behave, I wanted to expand my worldview by listening and learning from as many different groups of people as I could find. It involved a few unavoidable faux pas and embarrassments. But more importantly, it involved the excitement of learning to look at the world from new points of view. So, get out of your comfort zone and try out something you’ve never done before – you’ll learn something new about yourself, pique your curiosity, and add some sparkle into your days.
Connect with the future you desire
Commit to long-term goals you are excited about
Nothing fills your life with meaning better than having some larger goal you are committed to. Having a chance to pursue such a goal helps you get out of bed in the morning and join the ‘Thank God it’s Monday’ club. So, besides injecting small challenges and interesting activities into your everyday life, try also to identify what grand goals could make you excited. What is the legacy you want to leave behind you? What do you want your grandchildren to remember about you? What kind of positive change do you want your career to contribute towards?
One tool to help you to identify a career or grand goals meaningful to you is the following classic Venn diagram (sometimes somewhat dubiously called the ikigai diagram):
Take a moment to truly contemplate each question in the diagram: start by listing again things you love doing (as you already did in the previous step). Next, list what positive causes you personally find most worthwhile and what kind of change you would most want to see in the world – this is to figure out what the world needs. Third try to identify what you are good at right now and what you could become good at – sometimes through years of education. Finally, if you are looking for a job rather than a volunteering mission, think about who could pay you for doing the things you love doing in a way that benefits others. Having generated these ideas related to each of the four dimensions, start looking for connections between them – what are the things you both love doing and are good at doing; which of your interests are such that someone would pay you for pursuing them, and so forth.
Most probably, you will not find any single activity or career that would immediately fulfil all four dimensions. But drawing connections between different dimensions can help you identify what positive change your values, interests and skill set could make possible. Having found goals that build one or more connections between the dimensions, start drafting a path that you could take to be able to truly pursue that grand goal of yours.
You might not find such a purpose for your life in one sitting. It can take years to crystallise. But it is worth putting effort into this, as identifying a mission worth fighting for can energise your existence, lift your spirits and give you clarity. Thus, it is another powerful way to put languishing behind you.
Exploit the power of small wins
When you are stuck, grand long-term goals can feel too remote to be motivating. If that’s your experience, start with small wins instead. What small steps of progress can you accomplish today, or in the next five minutes? Getting things done tends to make us feel good and boosts our confidence. If you are lacking both, starting small is the key. Identify some goals that are close and easy enough that you can be relatively sure of achieving them. If everything feels messy in your life, start with cleaning your room – or your desk at work. If altering your whole lifestyle feels overwhelming, start with committing to exercise 10 minutes every other day. Build a sense of confidence and agency through those small wins, and soon you will be ready to take on bigger challenges.
A sense of learning and progress is exciting – and so is the sense of mastery you experience when you perform something challenging that forces you to fully concentrate. Such moments give rise to a sense of flow, moments of immense concentration where everything else zones away and you are fully immersed in the task at hand. Such moments of flow are a direct antidote to languishing.
So, start small but increase the challenge level gradually, to stay in the flow zone, which sits midway between the anxiety of too-hard challenges and the boredom of too-easy challenges. When I learned juggling, I threw one ball from one hand to another until that felt easy, then added a second one and practised throwing them together until that also felt easy, only then taking the third ball, which now felt like an acceptable and not overwhelming level of challenge. To conquer languishing, whether within or outside your work, find ways to challenge yourself to grow, develop and experience moments of flow.
Key points – How to get your mojo back
- Understand the nature of languishing. It is a state in which you lack both positive feelings and negative feelings. Everything feels boring and uninteresting.
- Know the consequences of languishing. It can sap your motivation and put you at risk of mental health problems. But, with the right approach, it can be overcome easily.
- Connect with the situation. Learn to name and accept your feelings; adopt a Stoic attitude toward struggles you can’t win; and be present in the moment.
- Connect with others. Meaning comes from other people, so make time to be in contact with family, friends and strangers. Small acts of kindness are an easy way to connect.
- Connect with yourself. Spend some time reflecting on what makes you tick and challenge yourself to do something you’ve never done before.
- Connect with the future you desire. Reflect on the long-term goals that get you excited. If that takes time, exploit the power of small wins and engage in activities that cultivate a state of ‘flow’.
How to know when it’s time to jump ship
We humans are social animals. Rather than being individuals, we are relaviduals and interbeings in the sense that who we are and what we are able to do are, to a large degree, determined by our social relationships. Up to this point, I’ve given you advice on what you can personally do to conquer languishing. However, often languishing can have causes that are beyond the individual. If you work in an oppressive organisation or under an abusive supervisor, not feeling good is a healthy reaction to your situation. As Mark Vonnegut (paraphrasing Jiddu Krishnamurti) puts it in The Eden Express: A Memoir of Insanity (1975): ‘It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
There are many situations and contexts where languishing is the perfectly natural reaction. In those cases, you have to choose your battle: can you do something to make your work environment better? Or do you have the opportunity to vote with your feet and seek out employment elsewhere, from a more healthy organisation? The same goes for other social surroundings, from intimate relationships to friend groups to sports teams: if they are the cause of your languishing, you can either learn to live with them or try to be the change agent to make the situation better. But if the social environment is toxic enough, no individual cure will help. What needs fixing in those cases is the social dynamics – if they are unfixable, it is time to walk away.
How then to know when you should just practise the art of accepting and building resilience to tolerate the situation – and when the situation is toxic enough that it is better to just leave? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer in the abstract to that. It all depends on the factors of the concrete situation: what alternatives do you have? If you quit your current job, what are the new employment options available to you? What sacrifices would the change involve? What support and resources do you have available to go through the change? Typically, given the fear of the unknown and the inevitable struggles before the new, better future has realised itself – be it a new job, a new partner, or a new group of friends – most of us tend to stick with the ‘devil we know’, thus waiting too long before making the switch. So if you have been stuck for years, with no improvement in sight, tired of empty promises of change, then it most probably is already time to make the move.
One last thing: I want emphasise that while languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health, it can also slide into more active illbeing and depression. If that is the case and if it feels like you are unable to drag yourself out with your own power, then it is probably time to seek professional help.
Links & books
Adam Grant’s TED talk ‘How to Stop Languishing and Start Finding Flow’ (2021) offers a 15-minute introduction to languishing and three tools to overcome it.
In this seven-minute video, CBC News interviewed two psychologists, Shimi Kang and Rehman Abdulrehman, about what languishing is and how it affects people, as well as what we can do to get out of languishing.
Corey Keyes is the sociologist who coined the term languishing and has done many of the key psychological studies on the topic. In his 37-minute conference talk ‘Flourishing vs Languishing’ (2011), available on YouTube, Keyes explains why we should care about both, what the research says about their prevalence, and offers advice on what could be done to better support flourishing.
My book A Wonderful Life: Insights on Finding a Meaningful Existence (2020) addresses the human search for meaning in life, examining why we seek meaning, how our understanding of meaningfulness has changed over history, and what are the four key pathways for a more meaningful existence. These pathways are also applicable as ways of getting out of languishing.
The article ‘Languishing Is the Mood of 2021. How to Identify It and How to Cope’ (2021) by Sarah Fielding for Verywell Mind offers another take on languishing and how to overcome it, featuring interviews with a number of individuals struggling with languishing.
Coming out in 2024, Keyes’s book Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down will offer his guide on how to overcome languishing and start flourishing again.