In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing.

  • Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others.
  • Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

But there’s a huge grey space in between these two extremes – and that’s where most of us are finding ourselves whilst a global pandemic takes charge, disrupts and governs our life plans. A term called “languishing” seems to be the most prevalent emotion or mood in 2021.

With the vaccination drive in effect, and things returning back to normalcy albeit slowly, most of us are still not excited about life the way we would’ve been in a post pandemic world. It seems like we’re all just “showing up” for life day after day with no motivation and living without a real purpose or aim.  

So, what exactly is Languishing?

Languishing is not depression or sadness, but rather the absence of essentially “good” feelings about one’s life. While depression is a clinical disorder characterised by acute sadness, languishing is neither feeling good nor bad. Languishing is feeling…nothing! It is also the lack of meaning, purpose or belonging in life, which leads to emptiness, lack of emotion and stagnation.

American sociologist Corey M. Keyes first coined the term languishing as the antithesis of flourishing. He says, “It's almost like you put yourself on hold and you're waiting for something good to happen, or you're even trying to distract yourself by jumpstarting a good old battery that I call emotion, which is to feel something.”

“But the pandemic has been going on for quite some time – why am I beginning to feel this way now?” you might ask.

Well, in the early and relatively uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that our brain’s threat detection system called the amygdala was on high alert. Our brain has a flight-or-fight response to uncertain situations as a result of this. As we learnt that masks help protect us, that restaurant food is safe to consume and that washing our vegetables with soap isn’t helpful, we developed routines that helped ease our sense of dread.

But the pandemic has dragged on, and gotten worse, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.  

what is languishing

What can we do to get out of this funk?

While we can’t wave a magic wand and bring the pandemic to an end, there are a couple of actionable ways in which we can deal with being stuck in this limbo.

Recognise your Circle of Influence

According to psychologist Stephen Covey, two circles that reflect our worries in life are called the circle of concern and the circle of influence. Recognising your circle of influence and working with that at the centrefold is a great way to prioritise your life and live by your own rules. You can find out more about this here.

Give yourself the permission to enjoy

Instead of thinking about what “should” make you happy or how things are “supposed to be”, lean into anything you think might bring you enjoyment (as long as it’s not dangerous!). Doing this will also allow you to explore activities and interests outside of your computer screen.

Change your scenery

Routine is boring and it’s difficult to imagine and expect human beings to function efficiently while they’re bound to their desks and chairs. While going out and working at a café or the park might not be safe or advisable, try moving around in your house. Take your laptop on an adventure and work from a new corner in the house. It’s incredible how refreshing a simple change in physical view can be!

Focus on a small goal at a time

To transcend languishing, try starting with small wins. This can mean carving out time everyday to focus on a challenge or goal that matters to you – a self-set deadline, a conversation with a friend, tea time with your family.

Be patient with yourself

As we head into a post-pandemic effected reality, it is important to take it slow and easy on ourselves. It’s time to rethink our understanding of mental health and wellbeing. We are carving out a new path for ourselves and patience will be our best tool in this journey!

More than anything else, it is important that we acknowledge what we’re feeling. Languishing is not merely in our heads – it’s in our circumstances. Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. It helps give us familiar vocabulary to understand what otherwise feels like an unfamiliar emotion.

We still have a lot to learn about what causes languishing and how to cure it, but naming it might be a first step.